Hawks fighting for their playoff lives once again

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Hawks fighting for their playoff lives once again

The Chicago Blackhawks wanted to avoid last seasons mad dash to the playoffs. They wanted a great start to this season to give them some cushion, to put themselves in a good spot so they werent sweating out those final regular-season games.

They got the start. But a rough February has them exactly where they didnt want to be: uncertain and fighting for their postseason lives.

The Blackhawks have 17 games remaining to hold onto their current sixth-place spot, or to move up, in the Western Conference. They had that leeway on Jan. 20, when a victory over the Florida Panthers had them sitting pretty with 64 points. But with a nine-game winless streak and generally skittish play since, the Blackhawks have gained just 11 points since then (75 points).

Theyve gotten into that dangerous territory again. And now with the pressure of staying in the top eight, every one of their remaining regular-season games is going to feel like a playoff game.

You try not to think about it but thats how its going to feel. Either you like it or you dont but right now were in that spot, Marian Hossa said. Now we have to go game by game, especially on this road trip. Its going to be a good challenge; were going to see where were at.

And the Blackhawks hope they see themselves somewhere in the top eight. With 17 games remaining, how many points will it take to assure then of that? Last season, the Blackhawks took eighth place with 97 points. The season before, it was 95 points; 91 points earned eighth place in 2007-08 and 2008-09.

Duncan Keiths had his eye on the standings.

Its important to understand that, first and foremost, to know where were at, he said. Its just about knowing our situation and knowing how important every game is.

Now its about getting there. The Blackhawks have struggled for consistency for more than a month now, and their schedule wont be breezy. Theyve got Central Division foes Detroit, St. Louis and Nashville two more times each. This trip of Ottawa, the Red Wings and Blues on the road will be tough.

We have to be better on the road, said coach Joel Quenneville, whose Blackhawks are 12-17-3 away from the United Center this season. With three teams playing as good as any are, we need to be strong in a lot of areas. We need our A game tonight. We dont want to look past tonights game. Lets be ready from the start, sound, responsible.

The Blackhawks will focus on one at a time but the big picture looms large. It looked like they were going to avoid this intense finale this season. Now theyre battling once again for their postseason lives.

Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

Patrick Kane was summing up the Blackhawks' weekend, one that didn't go well in terms of points.

"Good way to kind of judge ourselves, where we're at," he said Sunday night. "Might be a little bit of a wake-up call to see how good we really are."

Well, in a way, it is. You can't really compare Friday's loss to Washington and Sunday's loss to Minnesota on performance; the Blackhawks didn't show up for the first game and were much better in the second. Nevertheless, it was the same result in each. The Blackhawks' lengthy hold on first place in the Western Conference ended, with the Wild taking over following Sunday's 3-2 victory.

It's not a sound-the-alarm situation, but the Blackhawks are certainly cognizant of the missed opportunity last weekend and that they came up short against the league's best.

Artem Anisimov agreed with Kane's assessment.

"We just need to play better. All four lines need to play better in all areas of the ice. Just be better in the little things," Anisimov said. "Back check, put stick in the right position, box the guy out, short shifts. All little things need to be better."

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Many of the little things that were absent against the Capitals were back against the Wild. But coach Joel Quenneville wasn't happy with mistakes made on goals allowed, especially the first two. And while Kane and the second line were a consistent scoring threat against the Wild, the other three lines weren't. It's a problem that's plagued the Blackhawks a good deal this season, even when they were stringing together victories.

There is no reason to think that, because of this weekend's results, the Blackhawks are going to falter against strong teams. They've done well against others already this season. They beat Montreal earlier this season, when the Canadiens were healthy and steamrolling everyone. They beat the New York Rangers when the Rangers and former Blackhawks backup goaltender Antti Raanta were on their respective hot streaks.

Still, Kane's analysis is correct: This should get the Blackhawks' attention. The Wild have beaten the Blackhawks in eight consecutive regular-season games now and will face them three more times this season. They have two more meetings with the Edmonton Oilers, who beat them soundly in November.

The Blackhawks' long reign atop the Western Conference standings is over. They’re currently second in the Central Division, with an eight-point cushion over the St. Louis Blues. The Blackhawks have done fairly well this season. But this weekend was a reminder that they can be better.

"The game (on Friday) was kind of like a shock to the system thinking maybe you're one of the top teams in the league, or being able to compete with one of the top teams, and we obviously got thoroughly outplayed. We came back (Sunday night). It was pretty even in chances. We might've even had more so, just kind of didn't pull it out," Kane said. "But (when) you've played two of the better teams in the league and lose, there's got to be room for improvement, right?"

Resilient Wild make statement with comeback win over Blackhawks

Resilient Wild make statement with comeback win over Blackhawks

The Minnesota Wild have been chasing the Blackhawks for a long time.

They may not be so far away now.

After falling behind 2-0, the Wild scored three unanswered goals to beat the Blackhawks 3-2 at the United Center on Sunday night, and moved into sole possession of first place in the Central Division and Western Conference with 61 points, and still have four games in hand.

But even the Wild had to remind themselves that they're on the same playing surface as the Blackhawks, who eliminated Minnesota from the playoffs for three consecutive seasons from 2013-15, two of which were en route to Stanley Cup wins.

"We were pretty slow," coach Bruce Boudreau said about the team's first period. "I thought we were in a little bit of quick sand. We watched them play. I think it was a little bit more [we were] in awe. It's the Chicago Blackhawks, we're supposed to be in awe."

When they snapped out of it, the Wild looked like the team that has become one of the NHL's best, having now won 17 of their last 19 games.

Wild nemesis Patrick Kane scored the game's first two goals, but Minnesota displayed the type of resiliency every contender needs by evening it up in the second period thanks to a power-play goal by Nino Neiderreiter — his third goal in as many games — and Chris Stewart, who found the back of the net for the second consecutive contest.

Jason Pominville, who hadn't scored in 19 straight games, registered the game-winner early in the third period to cap off a Wild victory. It's Minnesota's eighth straight win against Chicago, a feat that even its coach can't explain.

"To beat this team eight times in a row is really something," Boudreau said. "I don't understand how you could do it. I wish I would have had that knowledge a couple years ago. But it's a new year and it's just one in a row right now."

That's one of many reasons why the Wild have been so successful this season. They're taking it one game at a time, and no matter what the score is, they continue to play the same way and have the belief they can win any game.

Less than 24 hours before their win over the Blackhawks, the Wild jumped out to a 4-0 lead in Dallas and squandered it in the third period. They found a way to bounce back, however, to take home a 5-4 victory in regulation.

So, how do they keep doing it?

"I don't know," Boudreau responded. "We're supposed to. If you want to win, you've got to come back, right? You got to believe. I think the biggest thing is believing you can, and that's the first step. If you don't believe you can come back, you never come back. If you always believe there's a chance, there's a good chance you can do it."

Said Stewart: "I just think we're a confident bunch. We believe in ourselves. We know we didn't get the start that we wanted, but we got one to crawl back in it and all this team needs is a little bit of life."

There's no better measuring stick than to beat a team in your division that's won three championships since 2010, and has been powerhouses in the West for nearly a decade.

And it's something the Wild hope — and believe — they're in the process of achieving.

"It's always a big rival," Neiderreiter said. "You always want to beat the Hawks. They won a few Stanley Cup in the past few years, and that's something we want to accomplish someday. To do that, we have to make sure we beat top teams like that."