What do you do when the Bears are not playing in the NFC Championship Game, when you thought they would be? How do you fill that void and avoid the reminder that the team you thought was good enough to be there is most certainly not?
There are options. You can clean out the lint trap in your dryer. You can catch up on the changes to the federal tax code. You can arrange your dog’s sweaters by color and fabric.
Or you can go to the United Center and watch the struggling Blackhawks.
I ended up choosing the Hawks, who had an 11:30 a.m. game against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Capitals on Sunday. The Rams-Saints game started at 2:05 p.m., so if the Hawks obliged with an illicit six-overtime game, there was a chance I’d miss a football game that didn’t include Khalil Mack. Fingers were crossed!
The Hawks have fallen on hard times, the fall having been so hard that they’re in the franchise concussion protocol, a little-known category. Coming into Sunday’s game, they had the fewest points (41) in the NHL. Their goal differential was minus-38, the worst in the league.
They were on a five-game losing streak.
It occurred to me that I had traded in the memory of the Bears’ brutal playoff loss to the Eagles in favor of the reminder that the Hawks are miles from the era in which they won three Stanley Cups in six seasons. It meant that escape from the Chicago sports scene was impossible in mid-January.
And yet, for one day, the UC offered refuge from the bitter cold of a rough season.
The Hawks beat the Capitals 8-5, Jonathan Toews had a hat trick and Patrick Kane scored two goals. It all looked vaguely familiar, like the remains of a bachelor party.
Remember when times were good like that?
“For sure,’’ Toews said. “I know what (Kane) likes and how he likes to play and vice versa. I think we can complement each other well. I’ve seen that Kane has been playing with a ton of confidence, so for me, it was just to go out there and make his life easier and get him the puck and get to open areas.’’
In search of more scoring, Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton had decided to put Kane and Toews on the same line Sunday. It’s something Colliton’s predecessor, Joel Quenneville, used to do when a lightning bolt of obviousness told him, “Hey, my two best players are pretty good together!”
And it worked Sunday. Already leading 1-0 on a beautiful effort by Brandon Saad, Kane took a pass from Toews and whipped a wrist shot past Caps goalie Braden Holtby in the first period.
But then Hawks goalie Collin Delia gave up a goal that a Caution Wet Floor bathroom sign could have stopped. The thought crept in that this is what happens to bad teams and that doom was probably right around the corner.
But in a stunning upset, the opposite happened. Lady Luck, who had stood up the Hawks all season, made an appearance. Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov inadvertently knocked a puck out of the air and past his own goalie. Toews, who had been battling in front of the net, was credited with the goal.
“After (today), nobody will be asking how that goal went in,’’ he said, smiling.
It’s hard to watch Toews go through the misery of this season. He’s so associated with greatness, with those great Stanley Cup teams, that to see him mucking around in the slop of a bottom-dwelling club is tough.
He has absorbed his fair share of criticism the last few seasons, but a lot of that criticism has been unfair. He isn’t the kind of player to make a bad team good. He doesn’t have that kind of supreme talent, never has. But he can make a good team great. That has always been his strength.
OK, enough. He’s not dead. He’s 30 and having his best season in about three years. Maybe someday the franchise will give him a team worthy of him again.
There was more good news beyond a victory over one of the league’s best teams. Goalie Corey Crawford took part in drills Saturday. He has been out since suffering a concussion in a game Dec. 16. He played in only 28 games last season because of another concussion.
If you watched Delia on Sunday, you know that the Hawks could use Crawford and about four decent defensemen. Good saves were followed by painful goals.
But forget about that for the moment. The Blackhawks finally prevailed. Toews and Kane were back riding high. And it’s hard to complain about the team’s offensive output Sunday: Eight goals and a Cody Parkey slap shot off the crossbar.
I really need to let it go.
The Hawks held off the Caps in an up-and-down game. Unfortunately, it lasted only two hours, 36 minutes. I could only drag out the writing for so long. It meant there was still time to catch most of the NFC title game. Darn it.