The Blackhawks’ odds of making the playoffs have shrunk to 23% after peaking above 70% earlier this season.
A 3-0 loss to the Predators on Saturday — the Hawks’ fifth in five games against Nashville and 10th in their last 14 games overall — dealt the biggest blow to their chances.
With only 17 games left in the regular season, every defeat intensifies the pressure on coach Jeremy Colliton to find a quick solution to the skid.
And he knows it.
“That’s the job we do every day,” Colliton said. “We’re trying to find: ‘What’s the solution to play better?’ The players worked extremely hard today, and we carried a lot of the play. But it is a new phase in the season, and we have to find a way to get results, too.
“We have [Sunday] off to regroup and find new energy and come back with an edge. [We must] understand there are big games still ahead of us here.”
Colliton talked passionately before the game about that “new phase” and the priorities that come with it. He described how the quality of play around the league has improved over the course of the season, as it does every season, and the difficulty of pushing the Hawks’ many youngsters to keep up with that breakneck pace of improvement.
Yet Colliton seemed more optimistic and excited about the big picture than he has in a while, given how dispiriting the last month has been for the Hawks.
“We’re right where we want to be: in a playoff race and [with] a bunch of young guys big parts of it, getting an opportunity and being challenged,” he said. “We want to rise to the challenge and get enough wins to get in.”
The Hawks’ performance in many areas against the Predators reflected that enthusiasm and urgency.
They finally enjoyed a strong start and controlled play for the majority of the game. They set a season high with 41 shots on goal and, at even strength, had advantages of 28-17 in scoring chances and 17-4 in high-danger scoring chances.
But the special teams struggled. The penalty kill conceded a goal 18 seconds into its only appearance, then the power play gave up a breakaway that turned into a penalty-shot goal and later squandered a lengthy five-on-three. Those crucial moments combined with Preds goalie Juuse Saros’ heroics denied the Hawks what could’ve been a trajectory-altering victory.
And so the downturn continues, and the pressure mounts.
“It’s tough,” defenseman Duncan Keith said. “It was a huge game, and these are the biggest games right now of the year . . . [and] we just didn’t do it.”
“We’re trying to break out of it,” forward Dylan Strome added. “Tonight was a step in the right direction with how we played. Obviously, [it’s a] frustrating result, but we’ve got to keep playing like that, and we’ll be on the right side of it more often than not.”
Colliton’s ideas the last few weeks have ranged from scratching regulars (Ian Mitchell for the last five games and Carl Soderberg for the first time Saturday) to changing the breakout pass and offensive zone entry techniques to scrambling the lines.
So far, none has made a dramatic difference, but Saturday’s new forward-line combinations did show promise.
At center, offensively inept David Kampf was moved back to the fourth line, while Philipp Kurashev — one of the young players most in need of a spark — was bumped up to second-line center and Kirby Dach anchored the first line. That order makes a lot of sense.
The new third line of Pius Suter centering Mattias Janmark and Strome, though, was the most exciting development of all. That trio, in Colliton’s words, “generated a ton” — namely, 13 scoring chances in 12 minutes.
If those new lines — or some other idea — soon prove effective, the Hawks still have time to right the ship. They’re scheduled for seven more games against the Stars and Predators, their main competitors for the Central Division’s last playoff spot, and six of those are at home.
But their crashing playoff odds underscore how little time is left to spare.
“It’s all there for this group, in my opinion,” Colliton said. “I think we have it in us. Now we’ve got to act.”