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Taste of the ordinary isn’t the end for Blackhawks

Hawks center Jonathan Toews is taken down by Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo as he tries control puck overtime period Chicago

Hawks center Jonathan Toews is taken down by Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo as he tries to control the puck in the overtime period of the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3 loss in a shootout to the St. Louis Blues Thursday April 4, 2013 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Saturday

Blackhawks at Predators

The facts: 2:07 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.

Updated: May 7, 2013 6:17AM



NASHVILLE, Tenn. — What, you thought this was going to be easy?

Thought it would be all sunshine, lollipops and point streaks? All miracle last-minute goals, red-hot goaltending and laughter until the early-summer parade down Michigan Avenue?

Thought the Blackhawks would go all season without a regulation loss? Without a losing streak? Without adversity, without injuries, without moments of doubt? Without a prolonged stretch of exposed humanity?

Come on, now. This isn’t the NBA. There are no inevitable, inexorable, inescapable marches to titles like the Miami Heat is currently enjoying. This is the NHL, where No. 8 seeds can win the Stanley Cup and the Colorado Avalanche can beat the unbeatable. Where guys get hurt and guys get tired. Where momentum shifts and snowballs. Where every night is a grind, where every win is hard to come by.

Yes, the Hawks are an ordinary 6-5-1 since their extraordinary
21-0-3 start. Yes, they’ve lost four of their last six at home. Yes, they’ve coughed up a third-period lead in four of their last seven.

Yes, the Hawks are human. The Hawks are vulnerable. The Hawks are imperfect.

But, no, the sky is not falling. Not in the Hawks’ locker room, at least. There was nary a smashed chair or overturned table to be found after Thursday’s shootout loss against the St. Louis Blues — one that followed the familiar script of a third period gone bad. Just a bunch of guys relatively pleased with how they played, relatively happy with salvaging a point and certainly disappointed to not have two.

Outside the room, fan frustration has been compounded by all of the instant returns other teams have gotten from trade-deadline deals — Marian Gaborik (Columbus Blue Jackets), Jaromir Jagr (Boston Bruins) and Ryane Clowe (New York Rangers) all scored big goals in big wins in their debuts with their new teams. The Hawks, meanwhile, added only a fourth-line faceoff specialist in Michal Handzus.

But there was a reason for that. This group did something no team in NHL history had ever done. Yes, as Patrick Kane put it, you’d much rather have that run at the end of the season than the beginning. But the fact that the Hawks did it means they can still do it.

Don’t misunderstand. There’s clearly room to improve. Clearly things worthy of concern. The power play has gone dormant, with one goal in the last 18 opportunities. Yes, eventually having Patrick Sharp on the point instead of Michal Rozsival will make a marked difference, but 1-for-18 is 1-for-18. It’s unacceptable.

The goaltending hasn’t been quite as sharp lately. Corey Crawford has yielded at least three goals six times since the streak ended, and five twice. And Ray Emery had a pedestrian .895 save percentage in March. Of course, many of those goals can be traced to some lackluster defensive play from a team that built its point streak on its backchecking, shot-blocking and attention to detail in January and February.

Which brings us to these third-period lapses, the biggest concern of all, because there’s no easy solution. The last two games, the Nashville Predators and the Blues were the clear aggressors early in the third period, playing with obvious purpose and desperation. The Hawks sat back on the lead and paid the price.

There is little desperation in the Hawks’ play these days. How could there be, with the only remaining regular-season drama whether they finish as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, a relatively minor distinction given the parity from Nos. 3 to 12. It’s a compressed season, and these are the compressed doldrums — the equivalent of a sleepy February in an 82-game season.

The Hawks believe it’s not a major concern, that they will shake themselves out of it. General manager Stan Bowman believes that, too. So does coach Joel Quenneville. They’d better be right. After two straight postseason disappointments, and the heightened expectations the streak created, all of their legacies are at least partially on the line.

The regular season ends and the games that count begin in three weeks. That’s three weeks to get Sharp back in action, to get Marian Hossa back in the flow of things, to get the power play back on track, to get the swagger, the momentum and the desperation back.

Because just like nobody will remember the points streak if the Hawks don’t make a run at the Cup, nobody will remember these March and April missteps if they do.

NOTE: Patrick Sharp (shoulder) and Dave Bolland (lower body) did not make the trip to Nashville. The Hawks provided no further details on Bolland, who left the game after a Shea Weber shot off the foot Monday but played Thursday.



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