LOS ANGELES — This might be where it ends for the Blackhawks.
Right here at Staples Center, on the very ice where they used to battle the Kings for the Western Conference throne, they slipped and sputtered Saturday afternoon in a game they needed. The Hawks fell behind big in the opening minutes and lost 6-3 to the last-place team in the conference.
There are no must-win scenarios with a month left in the season, but they can’t throw away games against teams like these.
“I certainly don’t think we’re in a position where we can’t respect our opponents,” Duncan Keith said. “If anything, they should not be having respect for us the way we’ve been playing.
“I don’t know how to explain that. It just goes back to having a mindset of what we have to do and being focused and playing a predictable game for each other to make it easier on everybody. It’s just discipline.”
They showed little of that against the Kings, who had lost 10 straight and are treating the remainder of this season as a prelude to the next one. The Hawks are on the brink of entering that same phase. It has been a hard fall for two clubs that alternated trips to the Stanley Cup Finals from 2012 through ’14.
This defeat came three days after an unconvincing performance an hour down the road in Anaheim, where Patrick Kane’s last-minute goal saved them against the hapless Ducks.
Kane said their chances of making the playoffs would be “looking pretty grim” if they hadn’t eked that one out, but brushed the thought away like a bad dream.
He can’t do that now. The Hawks (63 points) are seven points out of the second wild-card spot, and they’re unlikely to bite into that deficit when they visit the Sharks (84 points) on Sunday.
With so much at stake as they try to make their dramatic turnaround this season mean something with a playoff berth, the Hawks delivered an absolute dud. The bright spot Keith and coach Jeremy Colliton pointed to was the “great first five minutes” they played, but that was revisionist history.
It was more like two minutes.
The Hawks botched a line change 1:52 into the game, and the Kings scored quickly on the power play. Their next power play came less than a minute after that goal when Dylan Strome committed a tripping penalty, and they scored again. It was 3-0 before Brendan Perlini got them on the board.
Other than those first couple of shifts, the Hawks were a mess. Colliton lamented the lack of “mental sharpness,” which is astonishing considering how much was on the line.
He saw the approach he wanted a week ago despite the Hawks losing to Colorado and Dallas, then it inexplicably disappeared. He wants that to be their minimum, but they were far below it on the first two games of this road trip.
“We’ve got to find a way to get back to it,” he said. “There’s enough games left, but we’re running out of time here. We’ve got to find that level.”
Perlini scored again at the beginning of the second, and the Hawks tied it on Connor Murphy’s fluky goal that ricocheted off a defenseman’s leg and fluttered past Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick.
That’s all they got. They managed two shots the rest of the second period and spent most of the third down two goals. Corey Crawford allowed six on 25 shots, but the Kings got so many clean looks left and right.
“The game was right there,” Keith said. “But we still do a lot of things, lately especially, that we’ve gotta tighten up.”
All the talk about what they could do and what they should correct has gotten tired. Do it or don’t.
The Hawks are one more bad week from being forced to concede the season, and a trip to San Jose is a hazardous way to begin this one. It’s hard to believe they can upend a championship contender.
“There’s still games left, but it’s definitely frustrating,” Keith said. “Time is ticking here. Each game that goes by is a wasted opportunity. It was a big two points today that we missed out on. The desperation level to play the right way has to be there.”
It surely wasn’t Saturday, and the Hawks seem to be further from it than they realize.