DENVER — The Blackhawks could be playing for the fate of the known universe, and pretty much all coach Jeremy Colliton would say about it is, “Let’s get the two points.”
He is unwavering — in his plan and tone of voice — and his temperament won’t be jostled by the Hawks’ season being on the line in this weekend’s back-to-back with the Avalanche. He has a clinical, almost robotic approach, and it has served him well.
So don’t expect any rousing speech in the visiting locker room before the Hawks take on the Avalanche on Saturday afternoon or leading up to the rematch in Chicago the next night.
“We’ll prepare them as we usually do,” Colliton said. “We just need to look at the standings and we know it’s an important game, but you can’t necessarily change your preparation. You do things right and perform at a high level, and it’s gonna be fun.”
Slow down on the fun. It’ll only be fun for the Hawks if they win.
They played reasonably well Thursday against the Flyers but fell 3-1, and no one considered that a fun evening. Winger Brendan Perlini described the postgame atmosphere as “pretty sour.”
The Hawks whiffed on a chance to close to two points on the Coyotes and Avalanche, compounding the frustration of an overtime loss to the Canucks a few days earlier.
As has been the case all season, though, the Hawks (74 points) caught a break and are still very much alive in the wild-card race. They’re five points out of the second spot with nine games left. The Wild (79 points) jumped the Avalanche (78) for the spot with a victory against the Capitals on Friday. The Coyotes also have 78 points.
Nonetheless, the Hawks are thrilled to be this close after sitting at the bottom of the NHL a few months ago.
“Who would have thought in November and December that we’d even be talking about this?” veteran forward Chris Kunitz said. “It’s awesome that we’ve been able to have the winning streaks that we did to claw ourselves back into this.
“But right now, we’ve got to take those best games that we’ve played, figure out what we did well and go out and win our next game.”
The stakes are so high that a split with the Avalanche might be insufficient. That’s probably the worst outcome the Hawks can survive and still have any realistic shot.
If the Hawks sweep both games, though, they could take control of the race heading into the game at Arizona on Tuesday.
Each step is treacherous from there, and it would still take a dominant home stretch for the Hawks to get to the playoffs. They play the last nine games over 15 days, and, after visits to the Sharks and Kings, they close the regular season with four straight playoff-bound foes.
But first, as Colliton is quick to point out, they have to deal with the Avalanche. The Hawks pulled off two one-goal wins in Denver in late December, then lost a hard-fought game at the United Center last month.
The keys this weekend will be getting the game to a fast pace and rediscovering their offense.
“We’re OK with a track meet, but on our terms,” Colliton said. “We want to be the one with the puck and catching them before they’re ready to defend.”
The Hawks’ offense, especially their power-play attack, has kept them afloat for months, but they’ve hit a rut at an inopportune moment and have scored six goals in their last 11 periods.
They struggled to get quality shots against the Flyers, frequently turned the puck over and came up empty on the power play again. The best thing this team has going for it is the scoring threat of Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat and Jonathan Toews, and those three have a combined eight goals in the last 10 games.
The slump comes as Corey Crawford is peaking. After riding out a rough start in his return from a concussion, he has a .961 save percentage and 1.33 goals-against average in his last six starts.
He has been so good that Colliton is considering deviating from his usual approach and playing him in both games of the back-to-back.
It has reached that level of desperation. It’s time to unleash everything they have left.
“We can tighten up even more, and that’s probably what’s required to win,” Colliton said. “We can be better. We’re gonna need to be better.”