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'Unacceptable' meltdown costs Blackhawks in loss to Capitals

Things couldn’t have been going much better for the Blackhawks as the second period ticked away Friday night. They had scored on a goal at home for the first time in more than 146 minutes. They had scored in the second period for just the fifth time all season. And Corey Crawford was rolling with a shutout streak of more than 150 minutes and counting.

Then they went into cruise control, and the Washington Capitals hit the throttle.

Washington scored three goals in the final five minutes, including two in the final minute, and defeated the Hawks 3-2 in a preview of the Winter Classic at Nationals Park on New Year’s Day.

“We played a perfect 35 minutes,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “We basically shot ourselves in the foot with mental mistakes — a couple plays that were totally unacceptable.”

Through 14 games, the Hawks are a pedestrian 7-6-1, currently out of the Western Conference playoff picture. It’s still early, obviously, with 68 games and six months left on the schedule. But with the division and the conference better than ever, the Hawks— who can occasionally seem a little blasé about regular-season games in November after making four deep playoff runs in the last six seasons — will have to find the fire to bring their best every single night, even against teams such as the Capitals, who were 0-4-1 in their previous five games.

Duncan Keith insisted that motivation should never be an issue, and that the Hawks pride themselves on “turning the page” each season.

“This is what we play for, right?” he said. “We’re playing for playoffs. There’s no guarantee we’re going to be in the playoffs. It’s a new year.”

Said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews: “It’s our consistency, it’s our accountability. We need to really get up to snuff in those areas, and when we do, we’re a really good hockey team and we’re tough to beat. But when we don’t, we’re just another team. We can’t accept that level of effort.”

The effort was there on Friday night. But it was only there for about half the game, as that focus and attention to detail waned just long enough to cost them the game.

The Hawks were up 2-0 on goals by Brandon Saad in the first period and Keith on a power play early in the second period. Then an ill-fated pinch by Brent Seabrook led to a 2-on-1 the other way for Washington, and Andre Burakovsky sniped one past Crawford to snap his shutout streak at 153:30.

Quenneville didn’t hide his disdain for Seabrook’s decision-making on the goal.

“There’s no reason to go in off the point there in that situation,” he said. “We make a bad decision and it’s in our net. Then it’s in our net. And it’s in our net.”

Indeed, the Capitals scored twice in the the final minute of the period to stun the Hawks and the sellout crowd of 21,892. First, Marcus Johansson spun around and fired a shot that went in off Seabrook’s stick in the crease to tie it 2-2. The backbreaker came with just 4.4 seconds left, as Matt Niskanen’s shot from the point was deflected by Joel Ward past a screened Crawford.

“Everything was going good, and we just kind of let them back in the game there,” Duncan Keith said.

The Hawks, suddenly down, woke up and started pressing in the third period. But the damage — self-inflicted and preventable — was done.

“I think we just got satisfied for a short amount of time,” Jonathan Toews said. “I think we felt comfortable with a 2-0 lead and it came back to bite us. We can’t be happy with that.”


Twitter: @marklazerus