DENVER — The Blackhawks repeatedly have battled back into the Western Conference wild-card race in the last few months, but this looks like their breaking point.
Their playoff aspirations are fragile after falling 4-2 on Saturday to the Avalanche in the first game of a critical back-to-back with them. If this wasn’t the knockout punch, a loss Sunday at the United Center would be.
‘‘Every game has been a must-win here, so . . . whatever you want to call it — it’s a huge two points,’’ defenseman Duncan Keith said, turning his attention to Sunday. ‘‘We’ve gotta have our best game of the year every game going forward. So now we turn the page and try to have our best game tomorrow, starting in the first five minutes.’’
The climb from here is daunting. Impossible, perhaps.
The Avalanche jumped into the second wild-card spot, and the Hawks are six points behind them with eight games left. They also trail the Wild and Coyotes — both of whom lost Saturday — by five points.
The Hawks surged to a brief hold on a playoff spot Feb. 20 but have swung wildly since. They’ve dropped as far as nine points out, then had it down to four Thursday.
A sweep this weekend would have lifted them into contention, and anything less would leave them in a bleak situation. The Hawks will linger a little before being mathematically eliminated, but even salvaging a split by winning Sunday probably won’t be enough.
‘‘Doesn’t really matter,’’ coach Jeremy Colliton said of the standings. ‘‘Just gotta win. Rest up, reload, come play our best game.’’
The Hawks’ drop-off came out of nowhere after a convincing five-game winning streak in which they toppled four teams that are headed to the playoffs or still in contention.
Stunningly, the strongest part of the team has been its undoing. The Hawks have scored only seven goals in their last four games — just one from the vaunted trio of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat — and their once-elite power-play unit has plummeted.
Toews and defenseman Erik Gustafsson scored Saturday, both at even strength.
The Hawks had a run in which they converted more than 40 percent of their power plays, easily the best in the NHL during that span. They got nothing on three tries against the Avalanche and are 1-for-24 in their last 10 games.
‘‘We had some chances, just didn’t convert,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘And they scored on theirs. We created some opportunities. We just didn’t execute.’’
It was 3-2 when Colliton pulled goalie Corey Crawford with three minutes left, and the Avalanche scored within seconds. He tried an extra skater again, but nothing came of it.
The Avalanche went ahead 2-1 late in the second period after penalties by Gustafsson and David Kampf gave them a minute of five-on-three. With Gustafsson already in the box, Kampf swung his stick at a puck and hit defenseman Tyson Barrie in the face.
The Avalanche took a 3-1 lead early in the third when a long shot by Erik Johnson deflected off Sven Andrighetto at the net. The officials reviewed whether Andrighetto had a high stick, though Crawford contended the puck hit Andrighetto’s hand or arm and might have been a violation.
Colliton was probably more jealous than angry. He has been lamenting the Hawks’ apparent aversion to that type of dirty work the last few days and certainly didn’t see such inclination from them Saturday.
‘‘Tells me we’re not ready to score those goals that are needed at this time of year when it’s almost a playoff game,’’ he vented. ‘‘There’s not a lot of tic-tac-toe, backdoor one-timer things. You’ve got to . . . manufacture offense in different ways. They did it, and we didn’t.’’
When asked whether it’s an unwillingness to fight for those opportunities, he said: ‘‘I’m not sure. Sometimes we do it, but clearly it’s an area we’ve got to get better in.’’
Now a Hawks team that is flawed even when at its best must play flawlessly the rest of the way. They’ll have to be overwhelming to topple the Avalanche on Sunday and keep marching from there. And they’ll need help.
The math has been working against them since their hideous 9-18-5 start, and now it has them on the edge of conceding.
‘‘Just come out and give it everything we have,’’ Keith said.