Of all the tricks in Joel Quenneville’s bag, reuniting Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is pretty close to a sure thing.
With the Blackhawks struggling to build momentum in the Patrick Kane-less home stretch, Quenneville put the longtime defensive pairing together for the first time since Jan. 18 — 29 games ago — for Friday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, even the Keith-Seabrook gambit blew up on Quenneville. Keith was burned for an early breakaway goal that set the tone for a disastrous four-goal first period and the longtime defensive pairing was broken up before the period was over in a 5-2 loss to the Blue Jackets before 22,187 at the United Center.
“Just one of those games where you try things,” Quenneville said.
It was that kind of game for the Blackhawks (44-24-6, 94 points), who started the night chasing the Blues and Predators in the Central division and ended it looking over their shoulder at the fourth-place Wild. With eight games remaining, the Hawks are five points behind the second-place Blues (46-21-7, 99 points) and six points behind the first-place Predators (46-21-8, 100 points). But they’re also only one point ahead of the Wild (43-25-7, 93 points), with a game in hand.
“You don’t want to get behind early the way we did and make things difficult on yourself,” said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, whose 24th goal of the season tied the game — however briefly — at 2. “We’re not going to over react and get down on ourselves. We’ll try to pick the good moments we had out there and build off that and find a way to get some energy and get ready for Sunday [against the Jets in Winnipeg].”
The Hawks lost this one in the first period, when they allowed four goals — two of them on breakaways and one of those shorthanded. Keith and Seabrook each was a minus-three in the period. Corey Crawford was replaced by Scott Darling with 4:14 left in the first period after Cam Atkinson’s short-handed breakaway goal made it 4-2 and elicited boos from the United Center crowd. Crawford allowed four goals on 13 shots.
“I wasn’t blaming Crow at all,” Quennville said. “We gave them too high a quality [of opportunities]. I didn’t pull him because of what he let in. We wanted to change things up.”
Quenneville instead blamed defensive breakdowns that robbed the Hawks of any kind of momentum they might have had. After Brandon Saad sniped a shot from the left faceoff circle past Sergei Bobrovsky for a 1-0 lead just 3;26 into the game, the Blue Jackets scored 41 seconds later when Ryan Johansen scored on a breakaway after Keith failed to corral a tough pass from Marcus Kruger. After Toews deflected a Johnny Oduya shot to tied the game 2-2, the Blue Jackets scored 85 seconds later when Kevin Connauton’s shot from the point got past Crawford.
“This team [Columbus] loves go. We gave them the puck too easily,” Quenneville said. “They got some odd-man breaks. But we’ve got to make sure the puck gets out of our zone on a couple of them; get in the shooting lanes; make it more challenging.
“Defensively, that’s something we’ve got to get better at. We’ve talked about keeping the puck out of our net. We’ve been pretty effective at it. But they’re going in too easily right now. That’s where we’ve got to tighten up first. I’m not worried about scoring.”
The Blackhawks lost for the third time in four games — a particularly troublesome trend considering all three losses have been decisive and to teams out of the playoff picture. Since beating the Islanders and Rangers on back-to-back nights for a four-game winning streak on Feb. 18, the Hawks have beaten only the last-place Carolina Hurricanes. They are 9-4-1 since Patrick Kane suffered a broken clavicle on Feb. 24 against the Florida Panthers.
“I think we had spurts where we played well. We just gave them way too many grade A scoring chances and it hurt us,” Toews said. “We’ve been doing that [to] our goaltender way too often lately and it finally caught up to us. We can’t expect Crow to keep bailing us out. It’s on us.”
The road to the finish line only gets more difficult for the Hawks, with back-to-back games against the Jets on Sunday in Winnipeg and the Kings on Monday at the United Center. The Jets (39-24-12, 90 points) are four points behind the Hawks in the Central division, though the Hawks have one game in hand. The Kings (37-23-14, 88 points) have won three straight heading into Saturday night’s game against the Wild in St. Paul.
But they’re not worried. They never are.
“Just play. Just play,” Keith said. “I’ve been here long enough to just play and don’t worry about those things. I’ll play my game. We’ll play our game. We just want to be our best every game. We weren’t our best [Friday] night. We’ll try to be better the next game.”