GLENDALE, Ariz. – As the regular season rapidly dwindles, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is well aware of where his team stands in the NHL playoff race. The Blackhawks headed into the weekend holding third place in the Central Division and, if the schedule were to end there, would open the first round in Nashville, where the Predators are 26-7-1 so far. Chicago left Arizona after a Thursday night win over the Coyotes five points behind the Preds and the first-place Blues.
Quenneville says that while there are “a lot of different scenarios that you can be sorting out every single night,” he thinks his team‘s recent run of playoff success (two Stanley Cups since 2010; a trip to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals last year) will help the Blackhawks focus on climbing the standings during their remaining 15 regular season games and gaining home ice advantage to start the postseason tournament. “We’ve got some guys that know the importance of where you finish and not just making the playoffs. We want to position ourselves in a better spot than we are right now.
“The players are very aware of that and they welcome that challenge.”
In order to move up, the Blackhawks’ offense must be more consistent, not to mention potent. During the past month, Chicago has scored more than three goals in a game only once.
Before Thursday night’s game against Arizona, Quenneville said the Hawks have been getting their share of chances to score but need to get more bodies to the net in order to turn those opportunities into goals. He added that he thinks his team’s offense is “much better than we’ve seen recently” even with the loss of star winger Patrick Kane to an injury that will likely keep him out through the first two rounds of the playoffs, assuming the Blackhawks survive that long.
On Thursday night they outshot the Coyotes, 44–18, but managed to light the lamp only twice. Both goals came on the power play—delivered by a unit that had not scored in its last 15 chances, and two players who had not tallied since January: centers Andrew Shaw and Brad Richards.
Team captain Jonathan Toews believes that getting goals from players such as Shaw and Richards who have been struggling offensively is “huge” for the team.
“We have a lot of guys in here who can score goals on a regular basis,” Toews said. “When you have individuals [and] they’re going through some tough times and don’t have the success they want or they’re working for, it definitely hurts your confidence. It’s hard to play the rest of the game, too, when things don’t seem to click.”
Chicago hit its stride in November and December when the Hawks won eight in a row, and 13 of 15, but has not enjoyed more than two consecutive victories since the stretch that ended Dec. 11. The team has, however, gone 5-1-1 in its last seven games, and defenseman Johnny Oduya feels the roller coaster the Blackhawks have ridden this season is one that teams usually go through, so they aren’t particularly fazed by the lows that have come after the highs.
“I think as a team you always have an up and down season,” Oduya said. “We focus mostly on team play and how we can get better and how we want to progress and play good hockey. Sometimes you have guys down and we still want to play the same way and be able to get those points.”
The Blackhawks’ most recent down came on Feb. 24 when Kane broke his left clavicle and was projected to miss 12 weeks. Shaw said the possibility of Kane returning if the team makes it far enough into the postseason is even more motivation.
“It sucks not having him,” Shaw said. “You can’t replace a guy like that. He’s unbelievable on both ends of the ice. He’s a huge part of our team, but I think that’s going to drive us to push even harder and step it up so we can give him a chance to play again this year.”
Of the Blackhawks’ remaining 15 games, seven are against team that are currently in playoff position, including two against rival Blues.
[daily_cut.nhl]“Obviously you want to win games throughout the year, but this time of year it’s a little bit more crunch time,” Oduya said. “I think everybody feels [the pressure at the end of the season], but that’s something positive. You tend to focus even more on winning specific shifts, specific games, segments in games, and stuff like that. This is what it’s all about.
“This is what you play hard for all year, what you battle for to be able to be in a position where you’re fighting for a playoff spot and to go to the playoffs.”
Shaw echoed Quenneville, saying the team’s mindset down the stretch is more than just “win and get in.”
“[We want to climb] the standings as much as we can. Keep winning, get the rhythm down, and make sure the chemistry and everything is all clicking.
“We know what’s going on. We know what teams are winning and losing. We know where we are in the standings, so we’ve got to just control the controlables and go out there and play our best hockey.”