The Blackhawks have been feasting on mediocre opponents, but the schedule won’t stay that friendly forever.
With a wild card there for the taking, the Hawks hit a rut last week and sit just outside the playoff field, three points behind the Wild for the last spot. They survived on middling performances against the Red Wings and Devils, then the Bruins and Blue Jackets smacked them by a combined score of 11-5.
It’s going to take more than a good period here and there to topple quality teams, and the Hawks have been erratic since putting themselves back in the wild-card hunt with a seven-game winning streak.
“I think a lot of the things are still there,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “Our maximum level is as good as we’ve been.”
That’s probably true, but they haven’t sustained it, and it has been taking too long to get there. They fell behind by two goals in the first period three times last week, and turning it up in the second was too late against the good teams.
Within 17 seconds of Patrick Kane tying the game Saturday, Blue Jackets star Artemi Panarin put one in the net, and Columbus closed the first period up 3-1 on another goal in the final minute.
The Hawks woke up in the second period and outshot the Blue Jackets 20-9, closing to 3-2 on Jonathan Toews’ goal, but Columbus held them off and won comfortably. It followed a similar track to the loss in Boston, where the Hawks came back from a 4-1 deficit to make it a one-goal game in the third period before wilting.
“Like I said to the players after the game, the negative is we lost two points and we missed an opportunity to close the gap in the race that we’re in, but the positive is we were in a bad spot and we turned the game,” Colliton said after losing to the Blue Jackets. “We were right there. Let’s find a way to do it for more of the 60 minutes, and we’re good enough.”
Making it a close game is a moral victory, and it seemed like the Hawks were past that.
They still have two weeks of a reasonably favorable schedule, beginning with a home game Monday against the Senators, and had better use it to make their move. The Hawks are in a group of seven teams fighting for two wild-card berths, and eventually somebody is going to get hot and take control of the race.
The Blues already have. They have won 10 in a row, and their scoring margin during that time is 40-14 after beating the Wild 4-0 on Sunday. Now they’re playing for a divisional seed rather than a wild card. Not bad for a team that was right there with the Hawks at the bottom of the league in December.
The Hawks are three points behind the Wild for the second wild-card spot. They have gone 8-2 in the last few weeks, but the numbers make it feel more like smoke and mirrors. Their scoring margin is plus-14, they’ve allowed a league-worst 37.4 shots per game and have a 46.5 Corsi For percentage.
It’s going to be difficult to keep winning that way.
“At this time of year, we just want points and wins,” defenseman Connor Murphy said. “Don’t look too deep into that. There’s parts of your game you want to see get clean and to be the best team you can be running into February and March because that’s when it counts the most.”
February is already halfway over, and if this is the best the Hawks can be, it’s hard to picture it being enough to make the playoffs.