MINNEAPOLIS —Remember back in October and November, when the Blackhawks could barely score a goal? Remember back in December and January, when Corey Crawford returned from an ankle injury and looked nothing like his old self?
Remember back in February, when Patrick Kane was injured and the world had basically ended? Remember back in March when the Hawks went on the road and lost three of four to non-playoff teams to fall into a wild-card spot? Remember back in April when the Hawks, with a real chance to win the Central Division title, instead lost their last four games while scoring just five times?
Yeah. About that…
It’s time to accept as fact a theory that nobody wants to admit: The regular season simply doesn’t mean anything to the Chicago Blackhawks. This is a playoff team, built for the playoffs, always thinking about the playoffs, always confident about their fate in the playoffs. And the nearly seven months that precede the playoffs are basically an extended opening act, the faceless band nobody cares about and just wants to get through before the Rolling Stones take the stage.
“Unfortunately, you’ve got to play 82 games,” 35-year-old Brad Richards said. “I would have fast-forwarded to the playoffs in a heartbeat, but you’ve got to go through the process.”
At 35, and chasing his first Stanley Cup since 2004 when he was with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Richards was talking only about himself. But for all the members of the Hawks’ vaunted core, it’s never been about October through March. It’s been about April through June.
And sure enough, the Hawks — the inconsistent, old, worn-out, not-deep-enough, just-not-good-enough, possibly finished Hawks, based on which panicky fans and knee-jerky pundits you listened to throughout the season — are up 3-0 on the supposed Stanley Cup-contending Minnesota Wild. A win on Thursday would cap the Hawks’ first playoff sweep in five years, and put them in the Western Conference final for the third straight spring, and for the fifth time in seven years. It would be their eighth series victory in three years, an astonishing accomplishment in the modern era of the NHL.
You know that “switch” everybody’s always talking about? The Hawks had better find it, we all said. The Hawks can’t rely on it, we all said. The Hawks need to flip it for the stretch run, we all said. The Hawks knew better. They knew right where it was. They knew they could count on it. And they waited until the second period of Game 1 of the Nashville series to flip it.
You know why? Because they can.
That awful game on Nov. 14 in Detroit, when, in Joel Quenneville’s words, the turnover-prone Hawks were handing out “pizzas” left and right, doesn’t seem so disconcerting now, does it? Those three home losses to upstart Winnipeg don’t seem so paradigm-shifting anymore, do they? That godawful performance in a 3-0 loss at Minnesota on Feb. 3 doesn’t seem so disheartening now, does it?
Oh, and by the way, they still managed 48 wins and 102 points this season, all while tying for the fewest amount of goals allowed.
Aside from a lousy 6-2 loss to the Bruins on Feb. 22 after which the dressing room remained closed for far longer than usual, and Jonathan Toews had every single player sitting in his locker stall to meet the press after the game (which hasn’t happened in years), the Hawks always have been calm, cool and collected after such losses. We’ll be fine, they said. We’re not concerned, they said. We’ll do better, they said.
The underlying theme: It’s the regular season. Who cares?
“We’ve been through that kind of stuff before,” Patrick Sharp said. “You’ve got to be careful with saying [you can] turn it on and off like a light switch, so to speak, because you get yourself into some deep trouble that way. But we’re a team that has a number of veteran players that have been through a lot of playoff series. And even our younger guys have played some pretty meaningful games in their career already. So you try not to get too excited or too negative when things aren’t going very well. I think this season was a credit to that, up to this point. Things didn’t look so good for a while there. There was a lot of talk about how we were playing. But we came together at the right time, and hopefully we can have that continue.”
Of course, you can take such an attitude too far. En route to their second Stanley Cup in three years (as an eight-seed and a six seed, by the way), the Los Angeles Kings spoke openly last spring about how they can’t play their all-out, brutally physical style for a full 82 games. It’s just not feasible. Like the Hawks, they know once the playoffs start, they can turn it on. Only this year, they played with fire too long and didn’t make the playoffs.
The Hawks, however, never were in danger of missing the playoffs, even when they briefly fell behind Minnesota in the Central Division standings. The eight-game win streak started on the circus trip and the 8-1-1 spurt in the wake of Kane’s injury made sure of that. Like Marian Hossa in his own zone, the Hawks are always aware of where everyone is all around them, and know exactly when they have to leap into action.
Would home-ice advantage be nice? Sure. Would fans love to see the Hawks play the regular season the way they play the postseason? Naturally. But here’s something to consider: The four teams that finished ahead of the Hawks in the Central Division standings over the past two regular seasons combined for four first-round exits. To put it even more bluntly: Would you rather be the Blues, perennial regular-season powerhouses, or the Hawks, perennial Stanley Cup contenders?
It’s a dangerous way to play, and it can’t last forever. And it’s maddening for fans who live and die with every regular-season game while their heroes occasionally sleepwalk through an early January game in Edmonton on the second night of a back-to-back.
But who are we to argue, when every spring, the result is the same?