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 notebook: A busy draft, free agency and RFAs

Blackhawks notebook: A busy draft, free agency and RFAs

Eight draft picks in about 3 ½ hours. It was a busy Saturday for the Blackhawks, and when general manager Stan Bowman talked that afternoon about the team’s Day 2 haul, he came prepared.

“I have my little cheat sheet,” Bowman said of the paper on which he had written the Blackhawks’ eight newest prospects.

After a few days’ worth of moves the Blackhawks focused on the future, taking nine players over two days at the NHL Draft. It was a successful weekend for the Blackhawks, who hosted the draft for the first time and built up assets, especially on the blue line. Five of the Blackhawks’ nine selections were defensemen.

“One of the things we talked about was looking at the market. There’s a high value on defensemen. We’re not necessarily looking at the draft but our team this year and over the next couple of years; those are the assets that are valuable around the league,” Bowman said. “Look at the trade Calgary made [for Travis Hamonic], defensemen are a valuable commodity. That was a priority coming in and we were able to accomplish it.”

What comes next

The Blackhawks got what they wanted at this weekend’s draft but the focus will soon shift, as free agency opens on July 1. It remains to be seen what the Blackhawks will have cap-wise come a week from now. Currently, according to CapFriendly.com, they’re $1.445 million over the $75 million cap. It’s doubtful the Blackhawks apply the long-term injured reserve tag on Marian Hossa during the offseason. It’s possible they could still trade Marcus Kruger to gain some space. Bowman said, one way or another, “there will be some movement.”

“We’ll bring some players in, I don’t know how many, what position or what level,” he said. “This is where there’s a lot of activity, the couple weeks in the middle of June until the middle of July. That’s when the most changes happen. We’ll go to work, now that we’re past this.”

Wait for it

The Blackhawks also have to decide whether or not to qualify restricted free agents Dennis Rasmussen and Tomas Jurco. Bowman said that’ll be decided by Monday.

“I’ve had discussions with both agents,” he said. “I don’t have an answer right now but we’ll have that worked out in the next day and a half.”

Niklas Hjalmarsson reflects on time with Blackhawks: 'I had the best time in Chicago'

Niklas Hjalmarsson reflects on time with Blackhawks: 'I had the best time in Chicago'

Niklas Hjalmarsson heard some of the rumors, but not to a large degree. The former Blackhawks defenseman wasn’t spending a lot of time on the internet reading up on his potential fate. He figured he’d still stay put in Chicago.

“But when my agent called me about the 10-team list, I understood it was serious. Stan [Bowman] wouldn’t ask for that unless they made up their mind already,” Hjalmarsson said via conference call on Saturday. “That’s when it hit me that I’m probably not going to put the Hawks jersey on anymore.”

Indeed, Hjalmarsson’s next jersey will be that of the Arizona Coyotes, who acquired him in exchange for defenseman Connor Murphy on Friday. Hjalmarsson’s departure marks the end of the line for another Blackhawks core player, and this one is jarring in how it will change the team’s defense.

Speaking of change, Hjalmarsson faces a lot of it himself now. Sure, there’s the obvious change for a guy who’s played his entire career in one place. It’s new surroundings and a new team, on which he knows former Blackhawks teammate Antti Raanta and fellow countryman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

But the Coyotes have dealt with a lot of upheaval lately. Goaltender Mike Smith is gone. So is veteran Shane Doan. On Thursday, head coach Dave Tippett and the Coyotes parted ways.

“They’re on a rebuild, a lot of new faces, lot of changes,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s tough to know what to expect but I think they’re a hungry organization that wants to win like other teams. I’m looking forward to try to contribute with playing my game, just try to get the organization back in the playoffs.”

Hjalmarsson should find chemistry with Ekman-Larsson – the two were teammates in the Winter Olympics in Sochi – and Hjalmarsson will likely play a bigger role with the Coyotes. Arizona will probably look to Hjalmarsson a lot during its rebuild, given his Cup-winning history.

The first 24 hours were full of mixed emotions of Hjalmarsson. With his limited no-move clause, he was always a likely candidate to be moved from a Blackhawks team laden will full no-move clauses. He’s turning a page, but he won’t forget his time in Chicago anytime soon.

“I’m trying to always be a positive guy,” Hjalmarsson said. “I spent my whole 20s in Chicago, 10 unbelievable years. I didn’t think I’d win three Cups. Hopefully I can get one more before my career is over. I had the best time in Chicago, enjoyed every single year, playing in front of the best fans in the league. I’ve been spoiled. Now it’s time for me and my family to move on and seize the opportunity in Arizona and create some new fond memories.”