NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Blackhawks gave Jeremy Colliton one last kick in the shins to end the season.
While the finale didn’t mean anything for them in the standings, they talked about leaving on a high note. Instead, they completely collapsed on defense in a 5-2 loss to the Predators and allowed 50 shots on goal — hitting on a seasonlong sore spot for their coach.
“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” Colliton said as players packed their gear.
He has implored them to play defense his way since arriving in November, and there were stretches when they seemed to buy into it. Saturday’s game started that way, but it unraveled before the end of the second period.
Shots on goal aren’t the end-all metric, but no coach can stomach 50. Amazing to think that’s only the Hawks’ second-worst game this season.
Colliton is weary from selling players on the notion that more attention to defense won’t detract from the offense. Better defense will actually create more scoring, he insists.
But he’s done pitching. That ends now.
Replacing Joel Quenneville in the middle of a season wasn’t ideal, and he had to tolerate some things. When the Hawks return in the fall, Colliton won’t be the substitute teacher anymore. He’ll have a full preseason to make his demands clear, and those who don’t get on board are in for a confrontation.
“That allows you to be a little more direct and aggressive about enforcing how we need to play to win,” he said.
Colliton also said the current personnel is capable of meeting his standards, but the Hawks are “gonna try to get better in that way, too.” Some of the exit interviews might be uncomfortable Sunday.
The defensive performance betrayed not only Colliton, but veteran goaltender Cam Ward. He stopped 45 of 49 shots in what might have been the final game of his career.
“He was the best player on the ice, I thought, and gave us a chance to win,” said defenseman Duncan Keith, who was out there for three of Nashville’s even-strength goals. “It’s too bad we couldn’t provide more support, more goals and better defensive play, whether that’s the penalty kill or what.”
Hawks winger Drake Caggiula added, “He made some unbelievable saves and did some really big things for us today, and . . . it’s definitely frustrating when a goalie puts on a performance like that and you just don’t help him out.”
This is what’s sinking the Hawks and will continue to do so unless Colliton and general manager Stan Bowman find the answer. They allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL in 2014-15, a season that ended with a championship.
They dropped to 10th the next season, then 11th and 23rd. This season they were 30th.
That was the killer in a season that saw Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat set career highs in points. The Hawks were eighth in scoring, but couldn’t stop anybody. That’s not the path back to the elite status.
“We’ve seen a progression but obviously got some work to do over the summer to prepare and make sure we don’t waste training camp,” Colliton said. “We’ll be better.”
That’s a bold declaration after giving up 50 shots. Colliton better hope the players believe that as fervently as he does.