There’s no putting a positive spin on this Blackhawks season. No explanation or perspective can paint it as anything but a failure.
The team that spent nearly a decade vying for Stanley Cup titles will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season and is headed toward another last-place finish in the division. The Hawks rallied from a brutal start to give themselves a chance, then sputtered when it mattered most.
“It’s good to fight back, but it’s still not a very good season,” said goaltender Corey Crawford, who noted that a playoff berth in itself is a pitiful goal. “It’s tough to realize that now. It’s been tough the last couple years.”
The Hawks hung around until the Avalanche eliminated them late Tuesday night, leaving three meaningless games to get through the season. They played spoiler against the Blues on Wednesday with a 4-3 shootout victory that will cause a headache in the Blues’ bid to win the Central Division, and they can keep pestering rivals at home against the Stars on Friday and in a game in Nashville against the Predators on Saturday.
They’ll play Friday under a row of aging banners at the United Center, with everyone wondering whether they’ll get back to that standard anytime soon. The core that won those championships is still here, and much of it remains viable, as the Hawks saw with monster seasons by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Toews scored his career-high 35th goal in the first period against the Blues, and Kane had an assist on that one and a goal of his own in the third period to reach a career-best 107 points. Alex DeBrincat has scored an astounding 41 goals in his second season. Crawford was excellent after returning from a concussion, and Duncan Keith was still a relentless defender.
All for nothing.
“It’s just crazy that our season’s goning to be over in five days and that’s it for another year,” Kane said. “Pretty frustrating, especially when a lot of us feel like we’re in our prime.”
It has been a free-fall for that crew since winning the top seed in the Western Conference and getting swept out of the playoffs by the Predators in 2017. The Hawks were seventh-worst in the NHL last season and will finish a couple of spots better this time.
That plunge seems to have blindsided the organization from top to bottom. There has been a prolonged transition into building up young talent, as evidenced by the minimal depth beyond their top two lines.
But the Hawks didn’t necessarily believe that. They thought this would be the bounce-back season and they’d resume their spot among the elite.
“It was a lot of excitement and a lot of motivation trying to turn things around . . . but obviously there’s still some growing and some improvement and some experience we need to go through,” Toews said. “The biggest thing is letting this sink in and really identifying where we’ve gone wrong.”
Crawford added, “We were pretty confident going into the year.”
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Any exploration into the Hawks’ crash needs to start on defense. They’re a top-10 scoring team and ranked 11th in shots on goal and 12th in power-play conversions going into the Blues game. But their defense has been a wreck. Only the disastrous Senators have given up more goals and shots, and the Hawks have allowed by far the most high-danger scoring chances according to Natural Stat Trick. They also have the league’s worst penalty-kill unit.
No lead has been safe. Even in their best stretch, a 17-8-4 run that vaulted them to the No. 8 spot in the West, they scored the most goals in the league but also allowed the most.
“Everyone wants to talk about the guys that are out there scoring points, but there’s more to the game,” Toews said. “You need guys throughout your lineup that are going to fill different roles. Same goes for myself. I think we can all find ways to be better and help our team win.”
The Hawks slipped to a dangerous depth in the wild-card race after losing to the Avalanche and Stars at home the weekend of Feb. 22 and were essentially buried after a managing only two points in a make-or-break back-to-back against the Avalanche late last month.
There was progress along the way, but coach Jeremy Colliton keeps saying they aren’t where they want to be. That’s obvious. What isn’t clear is whether the Hawks are taking significant steps in the right direction.
“We’re better, but I think there’s a lot we can improve on still,” Colliton said. “We’re not satisfied. Not at all.”