Maybe there’s a wild card in the deck with the Blackhawks’ names on it after all
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Collin Delia didn’t even realize he was staring down the barrel of the highest-percentage shooter in the NHL.
Maybe that’s why the Blackhawks’ rookie goaltender was able to get a glove on a breakaway attempt in overtime by All-Star Elias Pettersson that nearly won Thursday’s game for the visiting Canucks.
Then again, Delia, who saved 40 shots in the Hawks’ clutch 4-3 victory, has demonstrated time and again since being promoted from the AHL in December that he isn’t the type who cracks easily. Even had he known it was Pettersson arriving like a lightning bolt at his doorstep, he would’ve been up for a good challenge.
“I don’t really care who’s coming down,” he said. “If you’re worried about who’s coming down, that’s one more thing you’ve got to put on your plate. Just keep it simple and try to make a save.”
Two minutes later, he watched as Jonathan Toews skated a teasing loop around the Canucks zone before lifting the puck above goalie Jacob Markstrom’s shoulder for the upstart Hawks’ sixth consecutive victory, their longest winning streak since February of 2017.
“I just couldn’t contain myself,” Delia said. “I was jumping in the air, so happy that he scored. He made an amazing play. To see that puck go in the back of the net, and all the fans cheering, it was pretty cool.”
It was better than that. It — Delia’s game-saver, followed by Toews’ game-winner — was the most important sequence of the Hawks’ season.
As winter began, the Hawks were inarguably in the running for worst team in the NHL. The standings confirmed this, but the evidence on the ice was plain to see and too hideous to miss. So much over the last seven weeks has changed — nothing more so than the hottest power play in the league — that talk of the postseason has taken hold.
Yes, the Hawks — 22-24-9 with 27 games to go — find themselves a scant two points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. But more than that: They’ve come to actually resemble a playoff team.
Well, they’ve come appetizingly close, anyway. Undoubtedly, there are those who would debate that in strong terms. But why let the negative know-it-alls spoil what’s turning into a pretty good time?
“We know we’re not even close to [our] ceiling yet,” Toews said.
Like Delia, the Hawks choose not to worry about who’s coming for them — or who’s in their way.
And it can’t be easy to tune out the loud clutter of the West standings beyond the top six. The Wild (57 points), Blues (55), Canucks (55), Avalanche (53) and Oilers (53) all have at least as many points as the Hawks (53), and all those teams, save for the Canucks, have at least one more game in hand on the Hawks. Not even the Coyotes and Ducks at 51 points each, or the Kings at 50, can be laughed at for holding on to wild-card hopes like grim death.
Nine teams fighting for two spots? No wonder hockey-reference.com gives the Hawks only an 11 percent shot to make the playoffs.
But here’s a simpler, and perhaps much better, way to look at it: If the Hawks truly are good enough, they’ll get there.
That’s the belief they’ll take with them into a six-game stretch against Eastern Conference opponents that begins Sunday at home against the Red Wings.
“It’s a lot more fun to come to the rink when you’re in a race and playing big games,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “For me, it’s a lot easier to come in and get excited. We want to keep that going. Everyone wants to play big games. The better job we do, the more we’ll play.”
Before the Hawks embarked on this 12-5-3 stretch that’s allowing them to think big, they were, collectively, a shell of their current selves. Early deficits routinely gave way to insurmountable ones. The only thing worse than the team’s bumbling defense was its unimaginably useless special-teams play. The faraway looks in players’ eyes after games were straight out of a standard-issue war flick.
But now? Ask any player what has changed, and the word “confidence” will come quickly. As Colliton puts it, there’s more “steel in their spines.”
“We’ve got a great group,” he said. “We’ve got some excellent leadership. We’re getting great performances up and down the lineup. We’re all in this together, and I’m just excited to see where it leads.”
To the playoffs? That’s the big idea.
If they don’t believe there’s a wild card in the deck with their names on it, who will?