Blackhawks’ first losing season in 11 years ends with a whimper in Winnipeg

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Meaningless regular-season finales are nothing new to the Blackhawks. Saturday night’s 4-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets was the sixth consecutive time the Hawks dropped their last regular-season game and the seventh consecutive time it didn’t mean much.

Jonathan Toews sat out the finales in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Niklas Hjalmarsson took a few off, as did Duncan Keith. In 2013, darn near the whole team skipped a trip to St. Louis for the finale, with a bunch of Rockford IceHogs called up to face the Blues. Brent Seabrook served as their chaperone.

But this time was different. It wasn’t meaningless because the Hawks were locked into their playoff spot. Rather, it was meaningless for the same reason the last 25 or so games were meaningless: Because they just weren’t good enough this season.

They weren’t good enough to keep up in a fearsome Central Division. They weren’t good enough to overcome Corey Crawford’s season-ending head injury in December. They weren’t good enough to withstand the head-scratching drop in shooting percentage of Brandon Saad, Toews and Keith. They weren’t good enough to survive a patchwork defense that was trying to replace four veterans.

The Winnipeg Jets and the Blackhawks come together at center ice wearing "Broncos" on the back of their jerseys for a moment of silence for the Humboldt Broncos bus crash victims Saturday night. (AP Photo)

RELATED STORIES
Tragic Humboldt Broncos bus crash leaves close-knit hockey world in mourning
Blackhawks honor Hall of Famer Stan Mikita with ‘One More Shift’

They missed Marian Hossa. They missed Artemi Panarin. They missed Scott Darling. They missed Hjalmarsson.

And they missed the playoffs. By a mile.

“It sucks,” Brent Seabrook said. “Like I’ve said a million times, this is the best part of the season coming up here, and to not be a part of it, to not be playing any meaningful games for us down the stretch, it’s been tough.”

The finale was fitting. Jeff Glass struggled, yielding four goals on the Jets’ first 17 shots. Hawks defenders had trouble keeping up with the speedy Jets, with Keith getting burned on one of Andrew Copp’s two goals. And the Hawks’ patchwork lineup — defenseman Jordan Oesterle played some wing with Toews out for the eighth consecutive game — just didn’t have the firepower to keep up. Seabrook had the Hawks’ lone goal.

Now comes more than five months of reflection and reassessment, of tweaking and tinkering. The Hawks aren’t going to look a heck of a lot different next season. But with Crawford expected to be back — Joel Quenneville didn’t entirely dismiss the idea Saturday that the goalie could have returned this season had the games mattered — the Hawks only can hope this was a blip, an aberration, not the start of a trend.

“This year was one of those years where a lot went against us,” Quenneville said.

Team president John McDon-ough, general manager Stan Bowman and Quenneville all said this week that it starts at the top. Your top players need to play like top players, they said. That means Toews, Keith, even Patrick Kane, who finished the season with 76 points, a great season by most standards, but not his standards. It’s his first season averaging less than a point per game since 2011-12.

“I think that’s so true,” Quenne-ville said. “Every run we had, our top guys were significant pieces to winning big games, big series and big moments. . . . That consistency really gives you a shot every single game.”

Count Patrick Sharp as a believer. He played his last NHL game Saturday, in the city in which he was born, and was caught off guard by a late-game tribute, drawing an ovation from the crowd and stick-taps from the Jets. Sharp is just a Hawks fan now, he said, but he thinks the championship window he helped open hasn’t shut just yet.

“I can tell you I believe in this organization,” he said. “I believe in the guys I won with, and I’ve played enough with some of these young guys now that you can see the potential and the talent. Hopefully, this season is enough to motivate our organization to be better next year. . . . I think the Hawks will be back.”