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Playoffs? Blackhawks destined to fall short if they don’t learn quickly

It was a blast from the past — sort of.

Against the Canucks on Monday night, Blackhawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson scored a tying goal late in the third period on a shot from inside the blue line that deflected off defenseman Alexander Edler past goalie Thatcher Demko. It was shades of the 2009 playoffs, when 21-year-old Jonathan Toews scored the tie-breaking, game-winning goal of the series clincher against the Canucks on a centering pass to Patrick Sharp that deflected off Edler’s skate past Roberto Luongo. As much as anything, that moment, that game and that series kick-started the Hawks’ magnificent run as Stanley Cup contenders.

But that was the only connection to those glory days. The Hawks were otherwise disappointingly uninspired against the Canucks. Coming in with all the momentum of a five-game winning streak, including back-to-back road wins over the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, and knowing they have virtually zero margin for error, the Hawks laid the proverbial egg with a 3-2 overtime loss in front of a sellout home crowd.

“I think we were missing a little bit of battle level,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “We didn’t win many 50-50s [puck battles] . . . but it was also execution. We had trouble with the puck, so it was tough to sustain possession. They were out-changing us.”

Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) battles Canucks center Bo Horvat (53) for the puck in the Hawks' 3-2 overtime loss Monday night at the United Center. Toews scored his 31st goal of the season in the first period. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For a Hawks team scrapping to make the playoffs, it was discouraging and inexcusable, but hardly inexplicable. Although big names are still around — Toews, Patrick Kane, Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brandon Saad — this is a developing team still learning how to play together and re-learning how to compete and win. With as much promise as the Hawks have shown during winning streaks of seven and five games since January, flops like Monday’s and their loss to the last-place Kings on March 2 are going to happen.

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They’re not like the 2010-11 Hawks, who barely squeaked into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season with Toews, Kane, Sharp, Marian Hossa, Seabrook, Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson all in their prime or playing at a career-prime level. Had that team missed the playoffs, a loss to a last-place team would have been worth lamenting. That team knew how to win. This one is still learning how to bring it every night, even when you might not have it. And they’re learning the hard way.

“It can be [a matter of] experience,” Colliton said. “But it can just be energy and trying to manufacture it. The ice felt like the puck was rolling [Monday night], so maybe you’ve got to adjust — just chip it in, chip it forward. Get on the forecheck, force them to play a bouncing puck on their half of the rink. . . . Our guys are used to making a lot of plays. We just weren’t making them.”

It’s a frustrating spot for Toews, who throughout his career has brought it every night, even when he doesn’t have it —  “trick your body” he calls it — and had a room full of similar leaders at the top of their game to set an example.

“It’s like playoff hockey. Even if you’re tired in the playoffs, you find ways to get your energy up and you dig deep,” Toews said. “That’s what we’ve got to do now.”

The Hawks were at least able to squeeze out a point against the Canucks. But they know they have to dig even deeper. At this point, it’s not just about how well they compete, but how well they learn.

“It’s how we handle it,” Colliton said. “There’s definitely a lesson to be learned. So it’s up to us.”