BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Blackhawks’ first practice after the All-Star break was sloppy and exhausting — exactly what they needed.
The team reconvened in Chicago on Thursday morning for a charter flight, then got on the ice at KeyBank Center for about an hour in the afternoon for their first real action since Jan. 22.
Players dispersed to refresh after a turbulent first half, and coach Jeremy Colliton prepared a rigorous first day back to get them ready for the game Friday against the Sabres.
“You don’t touch the puck for about a week, so you’ve gotta get the feel again and get your lungs going and get your legs going,” said Jonathan Toews, who maintained his conditioning while on vacation in Mexico. “You’re gonna make a few mistakes and fight the puck a little bit, but get that out of your system. I think we’ll be ready.”
Ready for what? A playoff push. The Hawks are hunting four points on the road this weekend in a back-to-back against the Sabres and Wild, which would be a strong start in their long-shot pursuit of a wild-card spot.
They sit seven points behind the Avalanche, which is hardly insurmountable if they get hot. The problem is they’d have to reach scalding temperatures and pull off their most productive stretch of the season to overcome their 9-18-5 start.
“Crazier things have happened, so we’ve gotta have that belief,” Toews said. “I think it’s exciting when you have purpose and you have a reason for playing. Every team believes they can make the playoffs, so why not us?
“We’ve had some ups and downs this year, but I think it’s been a learning process, and we’ve all gotten better, so now is the time to play our best hockey and see what we can put together.”
The first half saw the Hawks hit rock bottom, then punch back with a nice run in December before sputtering through a five-game losing streak in mid-January. They closed with thrilling home victories against the Capitals and Islanders.
Colliton spent the break rewatching those games and others with a concentration on his team’s defense.
It has been terrible. It was slightly less terrible during the resurgence, but still terrible. The Hawks have allowed 35 shots per game (second-worst in the NHL), given up 3.71 goals (second-worst) and have an .894 save percentage (fifth-worst).
Speaking of the goaltenders, Colliton is likely to split up the next two games between Cam Ward and Collin Delia but declined to specify.
Colliton saw better execution against the Islanders, though, when his team allowed 32 shots in regulation and Ward stopped 30 of them. He wants the second half to look something like that.
But that game feels like a lifetime ago. The government reopened and the polar vortex hit since then.
“That seems like a long time ago, so now it’s like we’ve got to get right back,” said Patrick Kane, who’s playing in his hometown. “We can’t get let any games or any points slip away, and we can’t think just because we had a break that we’re going to ease into it and play well. We really need to bear down right away.”
If they do that, they’ll gain ground quickly. And things will get a lot more interesting.
NOTE: The Hawks sent rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju to Rockford. Jokiharju has played in 37 of 51 games and has no goals and 12 assists.