First-period meltdown leads to fifth straight loss for Blackhawks

WASHINGTON — For three minutes and 28 seconds Wednesday night, the Blackhawks were truly awful. A failed clear by Duncan Keith led to a Nicklas Backstrom goal. Anton Forsberg let in a brutally soft goal by Tom Wilson from the boards. Then nobody picked up the greatest goal-scorer of his generation trailing a Wilson breakaway, and Alex Ovechkin cashed in the rebound.

Three-zip, just like that.

But here’s the thing about the Hawks’ 6-2 loss to the Capitals — their fifth straight loss and their seventh straight loss in Washington. For much of the other 56 minutes or so, the Hawks didn’t look bad. They had six of the first seven shots of the game. They had 15 of the first 16 shots in the second period. When J. F. Berube came in to relieve Forsberg after the three-goal flurry, he didn’t face a second shot until more than 18 minutes had passed. That’s utter dominance.

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“Don’t be fooled,” Joel Quenneville growled afterward. “[Our] shots hit them right in the chest, with no chance of getting a second opportunity. It’s almost like we gave the puck back to them, just putting it at the net with no purpose.”

So never mind shot totals. Never mind Corey Crawford’s injury. Never mind a brutal schedule that’s had the Hawks playing or traveling nearly every day for a week and a half. The only thing that matters is results, and the Hawks aren’t getting any.

The Hawks passed the one-third mark of the season on Wednesday, and they still find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, just one game over .500, a discomfiting and unfamiliar position for a team that has coasted into the playoffs for nearly a decade.

Time to be concerned? Jonathan Toews was disappointed but defiant.

“Clearly we’re not happy with where we are in the standings,” he said. “We know what we’re up against going forward. But when you say you’re concerned, it means that you doubt yourself and you don’t think that you have what it takes to be where you want to be in the standings. But for us, that’s not at all the case. [But] we know there’s a lot of pieces we’ve got to put together.”

That includes a horrid power play that is now 1 of 21 during the losing streak. And an offense that has scored just 10 goals in five games. And a defense that was overrun by Ovechkin’s line and gave up a goal and three assists to Tom Wilson, of all people. Half-hearted clearing attempts led directly to two Capitals goals. Poor coverage led to two others. A Lance Bouma goal that made it 3-1 late in the first failed to spark a comeback. Toews’ breakaway goal at the end of the game was mere window dressing.

What has made the Hawks’ losing skid — their longest in the regular season since a nine-game debacle during the 2011-12 season — so frustrating is that they haven’t played all that poorly during it. In fact, they’ve looked quite good for significant stretches. A power-play goal here or there and maybe those two overtime losses become regulation wins. One more save in a crucial moment and maybe this is just a mediocre .500 stretch of hockey, not the kick in the teeth it has turned out to be.

But this isn’t some fluke, a series of bad bounces simply to be written off as the breaks of a quirky sport. The Hawks simply aren’t good enough right now, and they’re not putting forth the effort required to overcome that mediocrity.

And the longer this malaise lasts, the steeper the climb will get.

“There’s always a certain degree of desperation that has to be there,” Keith said. “Everybody can see the standings, what they are. And we want to be better than what we have been right now.

“Obviously, it’s not good enough, and we need to be better.”

Follow me on Twitter@MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com