By Michael Kelly
DENVER — There is no panic for the Chicago Blackhawks but there is concern.
With 16 games left in the regular season, the defending Stanley Cup champions are now sitting in third place in the Central Division with the real possibility first-round playoff matchup against a team that has beaten them four out of five this year.
There was no fretting going on in the locker room after Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, just a little soul-searching.
“Maybe we can learn our lesson now that games aren’t going to get easier this time of the year,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “It’s time to play hard, it’s time to play playoff style hockey if we want to win games. That’s another two points we let slip, six in a row against this team.”
Colorado is now second in the division, a point ahead of the Blackhawks. If the playoffs started Thursday, the Blackhawks would begin in Denver.
That doesn’t scare the Blackhawks, especially after three of Colorado’s four wins were close.
Two of the Avalanche wins were by a goal, and another was 4-2, with Colorado scoring an empty-netter in the last minute.
“Over the course of the regular season against certain teams you’re record isn’t as good as you’d like,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “It looks like a landslide against you but every game’s been difference, every game has been close.
“When you out-chance a team all five games you’re doing something right. Just got to have confidence in all areas.”
The difference has been goaltending. Colorado has gotten great games from Semyon Varlamov while the Blackhawk’s top netminder, Corey Crawford, has allowed nine goals in three games.
Varlamov was the difference again Wednesday, turning away 37 shots and somehow keeping the charging Blackhawks from scoring the tying goal in the final minute.
Varlamov is 4-0 with a 1.59 goals-against average against Chicago this season.
“Getting behind against that team, it’s not an easy thing to come back, especially with the way their goaltender is playing,” Toews said. “We need to find a way to be better early in games.”
Both Colorado and the Blackhawks have tough games remaining, so there’s plenty of time to turn things around. The Blackhawks also have two games with first-place St. Louis, so catching the Blues isn’t out of the question.
But turning up the urgency is the first task, especially if Colorado is the first-round matchup.
“We don’t want to just think of ourselves as a team that turns on the switch come playoff time,” Toews said. “We know we have to get better but at the same time it’s not a cause for concern. We’re close in these games every time, we just need to stop playing into their hands.”