Last season, the Chicago Blackhawks were in a fairly comfortable playoff-bound spot thanks to their sizzling start. They were in first place basically throughout, with some challengers but nothing overwhelming.
Newsflash: this isn’t last season. This isn’t a 21-0-3 start with just 24 games remaining. This is back to the 82-game tug-of-war, and the Blackhawks are pushing and pulling with a few other contenders right now. As far as some Blackhawks are concerned, that could be a good thing.
The Blackhawks entered Wednesday’s games in third place in the Western Conference with 86 points, two points behind second-place St. Louis (88), one ahead of Colorado (85), which has a game in hand. It’s dicey, it’s tight, it’s stressful, it’s, well, it’s late-season hockey. It’s challenging the Blackhawks, and they know they have to be up to facing it.
“I think it’s beneficial, for sure,” said Brandon Saad after Wednesday’s practice. “Last year we had it pretty far in sight and we could relax a little. But competing going into the playoffs and being in that mode off the bat is going to help in the long run.”
It certainly puts the Blackhawks in playoff mode with 19 games remaining in their regular season. There’s something to be said for the stretch-run challenge. Let’s go back to last April: the Blackhawks were not looking their best in that series against the Minnesota Wild. Whether it was that lack of push down the stretch or just a tough matchup — Wild goaltender Josh Harding didn’t make life easy on them — the Blackhawks were not their sharpest.
There will be no sitting-pretty lull entering this postseason.
“Everybody’s got incentive on every given night,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Parity in the league is very close; we’re in the best division, best conference. And nobody foresaw the way Colorado was going to be, and St. Louis, those two teams that are right there with us. They definitely won the season series against us and those four-point games, when you go into them, have really turned against us.
“Earlier on in the year you could say that everybody’s gunning for you. Now everybody’s gunning for the two points,” Quenneville said. “And there’s a lot of incentive between now and the end of the year, no matter who your opponent is.”
We have reached that time of the season, folks, when teams are fighting tooth and nail for placement. The Blackhawks were mainly spectators in the jockeying-for-position game last season. This spring they’re right in the middle of it.
“We need to bring our game, to be clicking on all cylinders heading into the playoffs,” Bryan Bickell said. “We need to be at our best because we could easily be beat in the first round like a few years ago. Our focus is to play 60 minutes. If we do that, we have a good opportunity of winning.”