Through the dark, cold days of winter, as the Blackhawks staggered through brief winning streaks and longer losing streaks, coach Jeremy Colliton constantly maintained his team was playoff-caliber.
On Friday, as the final seconds ticked off the Hawks’ series-clinching 3-2 victory against the Oilers, Colliton saw that vision proved a reality.
‘‘The message has been that if you’re willing to approach the game a certain way and have a mentality that you’re willing to put the team before yourself, you can win,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘It’s been so rewarding to see our team embrace that.’’
For the first time since 2015, the Hawks have won a postseason series. For the first time since 2017, they have made it into the NHL’s field of 16 official playoff teams.
And for the first time since Colliton replaced Joel Quenneville as the Hawks’ coach in November 2018, his ambitious goals for his team appear realistically attainable.
‘‘[In] mid-December, there was a marked difference in our approach and just the commitment of the guys,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘We got better as the year went on after that point. [I’m] grateful that we’ve been able to continue that process here in the summer.’’
The 12th-seeded Hawks advanced to a conventional best-of-seven series against the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, which will be determined by the winner of the Avalanche-Golden Knights game Saturday.
For now, however, they can look back on their four games against the Oilers as the moment where their old guard and new generation learned how to win together.
‘‘For us, it didn’t really matter what seed we were,’’ said captain Jonathan Toews, who assisted on Dominik Kubalik’s tiebreaking goal with 11:30 left. ‘‘Across our lineup, guys stepped up their game. [We’ve] got a lot of young guys who don’t maybe have a ton of playoff experience showing what they can do. That gets you going and motivates you more than anything.’’
On Kubalik’s game-winner, Toews outworked Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear for a loose puck. He then passed to Kubalik, who lifted a wrist shot past Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen from the slot.
‘‘To be honest, I didn’t even take a look at the net,’’ Kubalik said. ‘‘I was just trying to shoot it as quick as possible.’’
Goalie Corey Crawford, who was rusty through the first three games after barely returning from COVID-19 in time for the Hawks’ trip to Edmonton, shook off his rust to put together arguably one of the best performances of his playoff career.
Crawford put a goal in the first minute of the game out of his mind and finished with 43 saves, highlighted by numerous stops on wave after wave of desperate Oilers attacks as time wound down.
His heroics helped the Hawks overcome deficits of 71-47 in shots and 43-25 in scoring chances — 29-10 and 19-6, respectively, in the third period alone.
‘‘I felt way better each game, playing each game and just seeing different scenarios and situations,’’ Crawford said. ‘‘Once you get more of that, just the better you feel. Tonight was obviously better.’’
‘‘He was our best player,’’ Kubalik said.
The Oilers threatened until the buzzer, whistling a shot just wide with mere seconds left on the clock. But the final horn marked the start of what the Hawks hope will be a special playoff run to surprise everyone but themselves.
‘‘There’s always going to be maybe unwarranted praise and criticism,’’ Toews said. ‘‘I don’t think any of that’s fazed us. We were pretty eager to get this chance and show what we can do. Technically, we just made the playoffs now, so the real fun begins.’’