Every game carries the weight of the season for the Blackhawks at this point, and there were times against the Sabres when it felt like it was slipping away.
The Hawks fought fiercely at the end, though, tying the game twice in the third period before triumphing 5-4 in a shootout as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat each scored on their first try to drop Buffalo.
“Two points for the team, keeps us in it,” Kane said. “We knew it was kind of a must-win.”
Those are the stakes seemingly every night now, and there was elation and exhalation when DeBrincat backhanded one over Sabres goaltender Carter Hutton to clinch the shootout and the Hawks emptied the bench to mob him.
The roar, the horn, the lights, the song — a spectacular crescendo for everything the Hawks did to pull this one out.
Then the gut punch: The Hawks’ playoff chances are worse now than before the puck dropped Thursday.
The victory is nice, but they’ve let this season slip to such an extent that they need a lot of help. And they got none of it. Minnesota, Dallas and Arizona all won, keeping the Hawks stagnant at a nine-point deficit with 15 games remaining.
They gained no ground by clawing through three periods, overtime and a shootout for the win, and time is working against them.
“We can’t control that,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “We’ve just got to put good performances together, and we’ll add it up at the end.
“We don’t do ourselves any favors if we let things like that take energy away from us. We’ve just got to keep winning, and if we do that, then things have a way of sorting out.”
The trouble for the Hawks is this race has been sorting itself out all season. The games feel more meaningful now, but all 82 count the same. Bad breaks and occasional ruts wouldn’t be so ominous if they had done better than 9-18-5 in the first two months.
Because of that, it’ll take a mad dash over the final month to move into a wild-card spot. Their start was so brutal that even playing at a 98.4-point pace since mid-December won’t be enough unless they’re near-perfect over the final 15 games.
“We’ve had a lot of games we felt were the most important games of the year,” defenseman Connor Murphy said before facing the Sabres. “That statement gets thrown around a lot. When we hit February, it seemed like we had a lot of games where you’re saying, ‘This is the biggest game of the year.’ ”
The next biggest game of the year is Saturday at Dallas. The Stars, by the way, withstood one of the Hawks’ best efforts to win at the United Center two weeks ago.
“Big game, huge game for us,” Kane said. “Another must-win, another game we need to come out with two [points], try to give them zero and gain some ground. Get ourselves ready and bring a better effort than we did tonight.”
If they thought it was tough extracting a win against the Sabres, who were eight minutes away from sinking the Hawks in regulation before Brendan Perlini came through with a goal, it’s going to be far more difficult in Dallas.
Their win over the Sabres was far from a masterpiece. Colliton is in no position to nitpick at this point, but he wasn’t thrilled with his team coughing up a 2-0 lead by allowing three goals in the second and struggling to get past a team that wasn’t playing for anything.
“I just wish we didn’t have to face adversity to turn our brains on,” said Colliton, perhaps unwittingly summarizing the season at large. “To our credit, I thought our third period was pretty good, and we got two points.”