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Varlamov makes 54 saves as another slow start dooms Hawks

They’ve been lacing up their skates, putting on their sweaters and hitting the ice for four months now, flying around the continent, and muddling through early mornings and late nights. It’s been a grueling grind, as always.

And it’s not even halfway over for the Blackhawks, as Tuesday night’s 2-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche — a game in which Semyon Varlamov made 54 saves — was just the 40th game out of 82. More than three months remain until what the Hawks hope is an extra two months of playoffs, even more grueling than the previous seven. And even for professional athletes, it can be tough to work up the energy and motivation to go all out every single day for such a long stretch. Especially now, as the dog days hit. 

“You must have been watching our morning skate,” Joel Quenneville said before the game. “I felt like [that] could be the mindset. We’ve got to guard against that.”

Easier said than done. Yes, every game matters in the long run. And it should help that the Hawks are in a stretch of 9-of-11 games against Central Division rivals. But really, for the Hawks, the stakes are relatively low. A seemingly innocuous loss in January like this one might come back to bite them in the standings come April — Nashville won on Tuesday to move two points ahead of the Hawks with a game in hand — but it’s not as if a playoff spot is really in doubt for the Hawks. Hasn’t been for a few years now. 

For the Avs — in last place but still within sniffing distance of a playoff spot — it’s different. Motivation isn’t a challenge, it’s a necessity. 

“The position we are in does not allow us to take some nights off,” Colorado coach Patrick Roy said. 

And so on Tuesday night, the Avs came out strong while the Hawks stumbled out of the gate again, falling behind early for the sixth straight game as Corey Crawford was beaten twice in 24 seconds — Nathan MacKinnon at 53 seconds, and Maxime Talbot (set up by MacKinnon) on a 2-on-0 24 seconds later. Johnny Oduya and the second line were victimized on both goals.

“To give up a break, 2-on-0, right after a goal and it’s the same shift, is hard to believe,” Quenneville said. 

At the very least, the brutal start woke up the Hawks, who dominated the final 58 minutes of the game, throwing 54 shots at Varlamov while Quenneville tried just about every possible combination of forwards. But just as he did four times last season, Varlamov singlehandedly got Colorado two points against the Hawks, who failed to generate much traffic or many second chances until the third period. 

“It was frustrating,” Patrick Sharp said. “The most frustrating part was the way we started the game again. Being down 2-0 quick like that changes the whole way the game’s going to be played from there on out.”

Jonathan Toews called the loss “ugly.”

“We’ll try and do ourselves a favor in the next one,” Toews said, “and get ahead and see if we can make the other team chase us for once.”

A little more excitement and intensity at the start could help, Sharp said. But sometimes, especially this time of year, it’s just not there. 

Players tend to break up the season into sections. The first part is all energy and excitement for the new season. The second part is the grind. The third part is the playoff push. But Sharp said the winter doldrums are hardly the only challenging part of the schedule. 

“That comes at different times of the season, you’d be surprised,” he said. “Every section of the season presents different problems. … Whatever time of the year it is, you’re always battling something.”

NOTE: Kris Versteeg underwent a “procedure” to stabilize a metacarpal fracture in his left hand, the Hawks said. Team doctor Michael Terry said it shouldn’t change the timetable for his return, which is three or four weeks from now. 

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus