After losing three of their last four games, the Blackhawks expect to respond like a championship contender, because that’s what they’ve always done in the Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane era.
Even without Kane. In fact, a year ago this week the Hawks were on a three-game losing streak, fighting for home-ice advantage in the playoffs and playing without Kane and Toews after Toews suffered an upper-body injury on a tough hit by the Penguins’ Brooks Orpik.
They responded by winning four consecutive games against playoff teams —beating the Wild, Blue Jackets, Blues and Canadiens — to go into the playoffs with momentum, and with both Toews and Kane healthy they reached the Western Conference final.
But again, that was a year ago. The Hawks are a year older, but not necessarily a year better and definitely not a year faster. Like a Hall of Fame pitcher who’s lost an inch on his fastball, the Hawks are trying to compensate for no longer having their best stuff. And it hasn’t been easy.
Toews acknowledged that has been a challenge for a team that has leaned on its vaunted core for seven years now.
“Absolutely,” the Hawks captain said prior to Friday night’s 5-2 loss to Columbus at the United Center. “You look on paper and the way the season’s gone, the ups and downs, and things haven’t been that smooth. But I think there’s always new challenges you learn from as a team and our core group of leaders especially learn how to deal with that.
“There’s some moments that are frustrating. It is what it is. And you’ve got to keep working through it and we are. We know that we still have incredible potential this year. We know we’re right where we need to be to play our best hockey yet this year.”
Toews vowed not to over-react after the Hawks lost for the third time in four games Friday night. But this is not a time to under-react either. The Hawks (44-24-6, 94 points) fell into fourth place in the Central Division, one point behind the rampaging Minnesota Wild (44-25-7, 95), who beat the Kings 4-1 on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center. Though the Hawks have two games in hand on the Wild, they currently are in the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
And the road to the finish line gets more difficult. The Hawks play back-to-back games against the Jets (39-24-12, 90) in Winnipeg on Sunday and the Kings (37-24-14, 88) at the United Center on Monday. The Jets are 3-0-1 against the Blackhawks this season and just four points behind the Hawks, who have a game in hand, in the Central. The Kings are the Kings — the defending Stanley Cup champions who had won three consecutive games to move into third place in the Pacific Division before losing to the Wild on Saturday night.
“That desperation that hasn’t come out yet has to come out in the next one,” Toews said.
The pace of the schedule itself becomes a challenge for the Hawks now. They were well-rested when they beat the Islanders and Rangers in back-to-back games on March 17-18 (five games in the previous 17 days). But since then they’ve lost three games by a combined score of 13-3 to non-playoff teams — Dallas (4-0), Philadelphia (4-1) and Columbus (5-2) — and have beaten only last-place Carolina (3-1). After playing the Jets and Kings, the Hawks finish the regular season with six games in 10 days — including two games against the Blues and one against the Wild.
“No concern,” said defenseman Duncan Keith, who is a minus-5 in his last two games. “Just play. I’ve been here long enough to just play and don’t worry about those things. Play my game. Play our game.”
“I understand that it’s tight,” Toews said. “Even if you do win a couple of games, there are teams breathing down your neck for the rest of the season. We just have to focus on our game — that’s the one thing that counts. Focus on what we can control.”
Those have been winning strategies in the past for the Hawks. But as time marches on, the challenge for a veteran team becomes greater. One day they’ll reach back for something that isn’t there. And you usually never know when until it’s too late.