Team president John McDonough made his mandate clear before the Blackhawks opened training camp in September.
“We need to do better,” he said firmly.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade, McDonough called on himself, general manager Stan Bowman and then-coach Joel Quenneville to step up their game — or else.
In short, it was playoffs or bust.
Six months and a new coach later, the Hawks find themselves closer to bust. With seven games left in the regular season, they’re five points behind the Avalanche for the second Western Conference wild-card spot and trail the Coyotes and Wild by three points. They have a game in hand on the Avalanche and Coyotes and two on the Wild, who lost Monday.
“We know it’s tough [to make the playoffs],” said defenseman Duncan Keith, who scored the game-winner in overtime against the Avalanche on Sunday. “The standings are what they are. Our focus needs to be one game at a time and just control that.”
The Hawks have been fighting an uphill battle since the start of the season, but they’ve never counted themselves out. In an unusual twist, stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane embraced the “underdog” role.
After coach Jeremy Colliton replaced Quenneville in November, the team hit its lowest point in December. At the time, the Hawks were 13 points out of the second wild-card spot and seemed destined for the draft lottery. They also were without goalie Corey Crawford, who suffered another concussion, and their power play was still atrocious.
• Blackhawks sign Boston University defenseman Chad Krys
• Defenseman Duncan Keith the Blackhawks’ unlikely hero in OT win over Avs
But then something clicked.
The Hawks began playing with confidence and a sense of urgency. Toews was producing again. Crawford returned to his star form. And Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat had undeniable chemistry, which resulted in a surge of goals.
Since Jan. 20, the Hawks are 17-8-1. They’ve managed to claw their way back up the wild-card standings and even briefly held the second spot last month.
Though the Hawks have struggled of late, losing three of their last four, they won’t give up hope until they’re mathematically eliminated from contention.
“It’s important to keep playing,” Colliton said. “Maintain a high level, and this is a team that can go on a run and win a bunch in a row. But you just got to get one first, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Looking back at the high expectations set on the team and what has happened over the last several months, can the Hawks consider this season a success even if they miss the playoffs?
According to defenseman Erik Gustafsson, the answer is “no.”
“If we’re not making the playoffs, it’s not worth looking back and seeing if we did something good or not,” said Gustafsson, who’s one of the Hawks’ biggest breakout players over the last few months. “We want to make the playoffs. We want to win the Stanley Cup. That’s all that matters.”
Colliton deflected the question.
“We should talk about that at the end of the season,” he said. “Right now, we’re all in on [this moment].”
Though the Hawks are struggling to end their season on a high note, they’ve shown resiliency.
In the third period Sunday, they outshot the Avalanche 15-3. That’s what Colliton wants to see going forward. He believes laying that foundation now could be a steppingstone for the future.
“We’re in a spot where we’re desperate, and you can respond in different ways to that and I really liked how we responded,” Colliton said. “Whatever happens, it bodes well going forward that this is how we reacted to being in this spot.”