PITTSBURGH — The outside of PPG Paints Arena has five huge Stanley Cup banners facing Centre Avenue, the most recent added by the Penguins in 2017. When the Blackhawks return home Monday, they’ll skate under a row of six hanging from the United Center rafters.
The Hawks and Penguins elevated expectations to a point where championships are the standard, and even a brief lull of not being in the mix feels like a full-on drought.
Pittsburgh saved a once-middling season by winning eight consecutive games before the 5-3 loss to the Hawks on Sunday. The Pens are solidly in the playoff field and are threatening to win the division. The Hawks strive for a much more dramatic comeback.
“It’s one of the reasons we’re trying to play here, to get ourselves into a playoff position,” Patrick Kane said. “We know we need to go on a couple runs.”
Kane doesn’t care if mentioning the playoffs elicits snorts and scoffs as the Hawks sit one step out of the basement. They aspire to make something significant of this year and they aren’t whispering or talking in generalities. They’re targeting the postseason.
It’s a perspective shift from the glorious run in which they eyed the trophy at the start of every training camp.
After getting swept out in the first round in 2016, missing the playoffs by a lot last year and opening this season 9-18-5, this version of the Hawks is young, scrappy and just beginning to find its way.
They’re an underdog, as defenseman Connor Murphy put it. It’s an easy attitude for him and the other nine players under 25 to embrace, but the veterans are also on board.
“We’re in there and we’ve got a chance,” Brent Seabrook said. “We’ve gotta keep fighting and keep working and digging and get as many points as we can.”
Digging for points wasn’t a concept for the great teams, when Seabrook, Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith captured the Stanley Cup three times. The season was preparation for what really mattered.
Players don’t switch instantly from that mentality to the one the Hawks need now. A few seasons of being just another team chiseled it, and they’re rediscovering the hunger of trying to claw their way up.
“It’s definitely humbling,” Kane said. “It’s one of those things hopefully you look back on and you can say it made you stronger, made you a better person, better player, better teammate — all those things.
“I don’t think we’re giving up hope, by any means, on this season yet. There’s still a lot to get done . . . Hopefully a good back half of the year for us.”
If this conversation is serious, the question must be asked: How strong of a second half will it take?
The way the Hawks have played for nearly a month is the reason there’s a flicker of optimism. They are 7-3-2 heading into Monday’s game against the Flames, which is playoff-caliber hockey in a small sample.
“I don’t know if we’re at that level yet, but it’s been better,” Kane said. “We kinda know the recipe for success around here and what we need to do . . . and if we play that way, we give ourselves a chance every night. I think it’s coming.”
What Kane doesn’t know is the exact height of this mountain. “When you start thinking about numbers and the amount of points you need to get,” he said, “it can only go against you.”
It has been a while since the Hawks did this kind of math.
If they maintain their recent pace, they’ll end up at 90 points. That’s been enough once in the last five years. The threshold is typically in the mid-90s.
The Hawks have 39 points, six behind the Ducks for the second wild-card spot. Money Puck gave them a 2.91 percent chance of making the postseason, slightly ahead of the Red Wings and Senators.
Many will brush that aside as unrealistic and not worth the fight, and maybe that wouldn’t have registered as a meaningful pursuit to the vets a short time ago. But teams change. The Hawks aren’t hanging on to a dynasty anymore. They’re an upstart trying to shock the league.
“We’re trying to build it back up again,” Kane said. “Hopefully it’s one of those things that after a while it just kind of clicks and then you feel it going the other way.”