With a shot at taking charge in the Western Conference wild-card race over the weekend, the Blackhawks played some of their best hockey of the season and came away with nothing.
They had plowed into the hunt the last two months to arrive at crucial showdowns with the Avalanche and Stars but couldn’t beat either team. After a hard-fought loss to the Avalanche on Friday, they fell to the Stars 4-3 on Sunday.
There’s almost a quarter of the season remaining, but the Hawks might look back at this pair of games as the point when their playoff bid began crumbling.
“We definitely raised our game, knowing these points are huge,” center Jonathan Toews said. “Even though you play good hockey doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win every night.
“[These are] two teams that are just as desperate as we are to stay on top [and] sneak into a playoff spot. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take advantage of these home games.”
Toews and the Hawks are unwilling to concede. They’ve weathered worse than this, rallying from last place in the NHL in December to join a vigorous six-team rumble for two wild-card spots. They’ve been close to the leaders the last few weeks and even jumped into the second wild-card spot briefly before slipping back to fifth place.
The Stars have the first wild-card spot at 67 points, followed by the Wild at 66 after their win over the Blues on Sunday night. The Hawks remain stuck on 61 despite going nearly punch for punch with the Avalanche and Stars.
“It’s probably not as ugly as it looked a month ago,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “Nobody’s going to win every game. If we win more than our fair share, we’ll get in.”
The Stars were rolling the Hawks 3-0 early in the second period before the Hawks snapped back and made it a game. Toews tied it on a power-play goal with 16 minutes left, but the Stars answered shortly after that when two brutal penalties gave them a five-on-three advantage.
First, the Hawks botched a line change and got whistled for too many men on the ice. Defenseman Duncan Keith committed a hooking penalty 32 seconds later, and Stars center Jason Spezza scored the go-ahead goal.
“We had them hemmed in for a long stretch of time, and no one wanted to change, [and] then everyone needs a change on the way back and there’s confusion on the bench,” Colliton said. “I’m not going to point any fingers right now. We’ve got to change earlier. That’s it.”
The Hawks scrambled for most of the last four minutes with a one- or two-man advantage but couldn’t get a goal. Alex DeBrincat rocketed a slap shot with 37 seconds left, but Stars goalie Anton Khudobin blocked it with his body for one of his 44 saves.
The Hawks outshot the Stars 34-17 over the final two periods, including 14-3 in the third. It wasn’t enough.
Adding to the disappointment, Patrick Kane’s point streak ended at 20 games.
“I don’t care how well you play, it’s going to be tough to pull out of [a 3-0 deficit] against a team scratching and clawing just like us,” Colliton said.
The Hawks also outshot the Avalanche 44-31 on Friday, with Slater Koekkoek’s turnover late in the third period leading to a breakaway goal as the Hawks lost 5-3.
The upside for the Hawks is they’ve still won 10 of 14, and they open their West Coast swing this week with winnable games against the Ducks and Kings, the bottom two teams in the Western Conference.
“It can swing either way pretty quickly,” Toews said. “Every team is going to have a couple games here and there where they’re falling back or jumping ahead, so we’ve just got to stay with it and focus on the next available two points. Can’t worry about much else.”