PITTSBURGH — The final horn sounded in Ottawa, wrapping up a forgettable two-day trek through there and Boston.
It was a back-to-back on which the Blackhawks hoped to gain some points and widen their gap over the Colorado Avalanche. Instead, the Blackhawks came up empty, losing in regulation to both the Eastern Conference’s best (Bruins) and one of its worst (Senators).
The Blackhawks have struggled to find consistency since the new year and especially since the Olympic break. But what happened these past two days is really unlike them. They’ve been sloppy, they’ve looked uninspired and once they’ve gotten down one goal, they’ve been on their heels.
Coach Joel Quenneville voiced his displeasure to the media following Friday’s game.
“Too many gaps, too many glaring mistakes,” he said. “Give the other team credit. At the same time, consistency and playing well defensively gets you success in this league. Maybe we’re looking for shortcuts.”
There could be a lot of “maybes” at work right now. Maybe the Blackhawks are feeling the effects of how much hockey they’ve played these past two seasons. Maybe they’re really, really missing Patrick Kane. Maybe they’re letting frustration get the best of them.
Whatever the reasons, the Blackhawks are playing with fire. We wouldn’t say they’re in huge trouble yet; even with Saturday being an off day, the Blackhawks could still clinch a playoff spot if Dallas loses to St. Louis, Minnesota beats Phoenix or the Coyotes beat the Wild in a shootout.
Also, late regular-season slumps don’t necessarily mean a quick exit. The 2007-08 Stars, whom I covered, went 1-8-2 in March of that season. They went from being in the Western Conference’s top four to fifth place, starting the playoffs against the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks. They advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost in six games to the eventual Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
Still, the Blackhawks said for a while now that they want to be playing their best hockey entering the postseason. They have seven regular-season games left, and they’re playing nowhere near their best hockey. Oh and Colorado, which beat San Jose on Saturday afternoon, jumped ahead of them and now has home-ice advantage in their very likely first-round series.
I tweeted Friday night that a talented roster is nothing if the work isn’t there. The Blackhawks have one of the deepest rosters in the league; but they have not operated like a cohesive unit lately and, until they do, they’re going to struggle.
The Blackhawks are certainly aware of what’s at stake; they’ve been here, done this before and know when to press the urgency button. Still, they might want to get near that button right now. If they wait too late to push it, they might be ending the upcoming postseason much earlier than they anticipated.