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Following scores around the NHL a necessary but worrying chore for Blackhawks

The Hawks are slumping while the Western Conference’s other playoff bubble teams aren’t, and that’s not a fun sight for Hawks players to see.

Jonathan Toews’ reaction to this Oscar Klefbom collision isn’t unlike his reaction when he checks the NHL scoreboard on off-nights.
Jonathan Toews’ reaction to this Oscar Klefbom collision isn’t unlike his reaction when he checks the NHL scoreboard on off-nights.
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP

CALGARY, Alberta — The Western Conference’s playoff bubble teams are collectively playing only .500 hockey recently.

But there are a lot of them. And the limping Blackhawks are playing significantly below-.500 hockey.

So it feels like all the competitors are actually on fire.

“[I’m always] checking what’s going on,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said this week. “[It] comes to be expected when you see that all the teams you don’t want to win are getting points, so you pretty much have to win every game.”

Toews’ constant checking of the scores around the NHL — watching games “here and there” on nights off, loading the app to see what he missed after his own games — is a habit throughout the locker room.

As the season closes in on its final quarter, that score-checking is only intensifying.

“Of course you look at the standings a little bit, try to figure out what we have to do,” defenseman Erik Gustafsson said. “If you win a game or lose a game, you bump up or are going down pretty far. It’s a tight standings, so every point is very important for us.”

The playoff bubbles in both conferences are incredibly crammed.

In the Eastern Conference (going into Thursday), only 12 points separated the fifth-place Islanders (72 points) and 12th-place Rangers (60 points), and those bubble teams had gone a combined 31-19-6 since the end of their bye weeks.

In the West, despite worse records across the board, the situation is equally compact. Only the Blues, Avalanche and Stars are virtual playoff locks; only the Sharks, Ducks and Kings are realistically eliminated.

Only nine points divided the fourth-place Canucks (67 points) and 12th-place Hawks (58 points), although the Pacific teams do have an advantage given the divisional imbalance. Excluding the Hawks, those bubble teams had gone a combined 28-21-7 since the end of their bye weeks; the Hawks, meanwhile, have gone 1-3-2.

Still, winger Patrick Kane foresees this reality changing after the trade deadline, when many teams will be forced to decide whether they’re sellers or buyers.

“About 10 to 12 games from now, some teams fall out a bit, and you know what teams are going to be competing for the last couple of playoff spots,” Kane said. “But it’s always tight and seems even more tight in the East this year.”

Kane is as hockey-obsessed as they come and follows the entire league, not just the Hawks, closely year-round.

But he admits his interest in such games around the continent has nonetheless increased as of late.

“It started a couple of games ago, starting to watch other teams — see what their scores are during the game,” he said. “It might be a little early, but I’m still interested to see what happens. Every night, a team you don’t want to win wins, so that’s just the way it is. We’ve got to take care of our business in here, but it’s still fun to watch to see what’s going on.”

And the same applies to coach Jeremy Colliton.

Even as he tries to navigate the Hawks out of their five-game losing streak, Colliton — like his players — is keeping one eye focused on the rest of the league.

“You watch as much as you can,” Colliton said. “We’re capturing it on video, too, so there’s never a doubt that you’re going to see the team you’re playing against — you’re going to see them enough.

“But when you’re in a race like this, obviously you care a little more, and you’re excited about the games that are on a given night.”