It’s normal for any team, even the best ones, to sputter to an occasional ugly loss — the mighty Lightning dropped a home game against the last-place Senators this season — and the Blackhawks wouldn’t fret over that kind of defeat if they weren’t facing such a narrow path to the playoffs.
They’ve played at a 105-point pace since mid-December, but they spent any margin they might’ve had by starting 9-18-5. That’s how they arrived at a point where anything less than two points Thursday against the Flyers would be devastating.
The Hawks have 10 games left to make up a four-point deficit in the Western Conference wild-card race, and they face a slew of sturdy opponents after the Flyers. They have a weekend back-to-back against the Avalanche, who are two points ahead of them, and visit the Coyotes, owners of the second wild-card spot, on Tuesday.
“Those are definitely games we know are coming up and we need to win,” Alex DeBrincat said. “Those are teams we’re battling with for that spot, and if we win those, that’s really gonna help us out. We’ve just got to do our part in every other game, too.”
That means beating teams with little or nothing to play for. Eight of the remaining games are against teams in playoff position or ones in the hunt, so it’s imperative to collect every possible point against the also-rans.
The Hawks failed to do that Monday, when their five-game winning streak ended with an overtime loss to the Canucks. It was a dud, and they would’ve lost outright if not for Erik Gustafsson’s goal with three minutes left in regulation.
“We weren’t good, and we got a point,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “We should count our lucky stars there and then prepare as best we can for this game coming up. And I think we will. I don’t foresee an issue of looking past anything. We just look at the standings, and you know how important the game is.”
The Flyers are all but done in the East, despite having 78 points, which would put them in a wild-card spot in the West. They’re 12th in goals per game and fifth in fewest allowed thanks largely to standout rookie goaltender Carter Hart. They crushed the Hawks 4-0 in November.
Hardly anything has been easy for the Hawks this season, even the allegedly easier matchups, and it’s doubtful they’ll breeze through this one.
“Games against lower teams are a little bit dangerous,” goalie Corey Crawford said. “You just don’t know what type of game you’re going to get out of them.”
With a tough homestretch ahead, the Hawks know it’ll take a near-perfect finish to get in the playoffs. Colliton said he never thinks that way, instead zeroing in on the next game, but the standings are impossible to ignore.
The Hawks slipped to nine points out when they struggled in late February, then got it back to a reasonable gap with the recent winning streak.
They’ve hit a point where another fluctuation would likely define their season. A minisurge could give them the lead by the time they leave Arizona next week. A loss to the Flyers followed by a bad weekend could sink them before they arrive there.
“I don’t think it serves us any purpose to think that way, especially the players,” Colliton said, echoing a point he made in the team’s pre-practice meeting Wednesday. “If we don’t win the next game, our situation is obviously less favorable, so there’s no point wasting energy on how many points we need [and] what other teams are doing.”