Blackhawks fall seven points out of playoff picture with third straight loss
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Five games into his first season in Columbus — and four months removed from his second Stanley Cup in three seasons — Brandon Saad’s Blue Jackets were 0-5-0.
There was a nine-game stretch that season in which the Blue Jackets lost eight games. And there was a seemingly endless parade of opposing goal celebrations, a league-worst 252 in all.
Saad knows what last place feels like. He knows what last place looks like. And it doesn’t feel like this season does. It doesn’t look like these Blackhawks do.
‘‘No, not at all,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve been through worse.’’
Yet the Hawks find themselves at the bottom of the Central Division, unable to make up any ground on division foes who just keep winning. Their 2-0 loss Monday to the East-leading Lightning, their third consecutive defeat, left them seven points behind the Avalanche and Wild, both of whom won to extend their hot streaks. The Hawks played well, but an 0-for-6 effort on the power play and a disastrous short-handed goal against doomed them.
‘‘That hole’s getting deeper,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said.
The Hawks have scored six goals in their last five games, so they certainly deserve their spot in the standings. Still, Saad’s not entirely wrong. The Hawks are on an 87-point pace, nowhere near good enough but hardly putrid. Those 2015-16 Blue Jackets finished with 76 points. The Avalanche finished with 48 last season.
Throw in the occasional standout game against the Jets and the occasional trampling of teams from the Penguins to the Blue Jackets to the Senators, and the Hawks think they’re better than the standings suggest. Which only makes their predicament more frustrating.
‘‘We’ve had games this year where we’ve played great against top-notch teams,’’ winger Patrick Kane said. ‘‘So we know it’s in here. We know we can be confident, given some of the games we’ve had in the past.’’
There aren’t many believers left outside of their dressing room, though. The Hawks’ climb to a 10th consecutive postseason berth is growing more daunting by the day. And losses such as the one Monday — a strong all-around effort stymied by a futile power play and a 40-save performance by Andrei Vasilevskiy — serve both to fuel the Hawks’ belief in themselves and the idea that this just isn’t their year.
Take the second period. The Hawks dominated the puck with a 17-5 edge in shots and had a four-minute power play to close out the period. They wound up down 1-0 on a short-handed goal by Chris Kunitz.
During the power play, Patrick Sharp was whistled for a delayed penalty. A shot by the Lightning was deflected over the goal, and the Hawks seemed to give up on the play, perhaps thinking the puck had hit the netting. It hadn’t.
So defenseman Erik Gustafsson, who only had to touch the puck to get a whistle, stood idly by while Kunitz got the puck behind the net. And goalie Jeff Glass, who was otherwise excellent, was slow to realize the puck was still in play behind him, and Kunitz banked the puck off him and in.
The Hawks are 0-for-16 on the power play since Jan. 9, squandering a two-man advantage against the Lightning. Yanni Gourde added an insurance goal with 1:34 left.
It was a good effort against a great team, but it was still a loss. And the Hawks are long past the point where moral victories do them any good.
‘‘What happens in our division is out of our control,’’ captain Jonathan Toews said. ‘‘We know what we’re up against. . . . We’ve just got to go out there and win one game.’’
And then maybe seven or eight more in a row. Otherwise, they’re going to finish a last-place team, whether they feel like one or not.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.