And then there was one
The Chicago Blackhawks thought their season was over a week ago on Sunday when they came off the ice after their final regular season home game, a loss against their division rivals, the Detroit Red Wings. All they had needed out of the game was a single point, and no matter what Dallas did that night against Minnesota, it wouldn't matter -- they'd be in.
But they didn't get it done, and they were at the mercy of two teams who were playing 400 miles away.
Several hours later, the Stars couldn't get it done, either - couldn't win the two points to put them in the playoffs ahead of the Blackhawks - and Chicago snagged its place in the top 8 of the Western Conference by the grace of the hockey gods.
The Blackhawks knew the new life they'd been given. The regular season erased, the playoffs to begin.
Now it is a week later, and Chicago took a tough third loss against the Canucks last night at home in the United Center. The players say that they haven't given up hope. Team captain Jonathan Toews admits the team hasn't played as well as they should have, but the team isn't bowing their heads just yet.
Games one and two in Vancouver could have both been a lot worse, if it wasn't for rookie goalie Corey Crawford doing his best to keep the team in the running. Despite his efforts, however, Vancouver shut out the Blackhawks for the series opener (2-0) and then Chicago managed to rally in the second game, led by end-of-season callup Ben Smith, but still lost, 4-3.
Last night at the United Center, Chicago used the home crowd to their advantage, and took the lead 6:54 into the first. They held the Canucks off the score sheet for half of the game, until Vancouver scored not just once but twice in one minute. Chicago responded with a goal of their own to tie it up, but only Vancouver scored in the third, and walked away with the win, 3-2.
There is little doubt that there would be few things sweeter for Vancouver this season than to sweep Chicago, and to take game 4 on enemy territory, no less. After all, Chicago has knocked them out of the playoffs for the past two years - in 2009, it was in Chicago; last year, it was in Vancouver.
Chicago's season has been a mess. Half the roster was revamped over the summer. Injuries have plagued the team all year, right into the playoffs - no sooner would one core player be readying to return to the ice when another got hurt. "Inconsistency" was a staple of game recaps.
The Blackhawks rallied late in the season, including an 8-game winning streak, and earned 97 points. Although many writers said they "backed into" the playoffs as a result of clinching their berth due to another team's loss, 97 points is still more than three Eastern Conference teams (Montréal 96, Buffalo 96, and NY Rangers 93) had, so nobody can say they didn't earn their spot in the top 8 in the West.
However, late-season injuries still haunt the team, and there were even more injuries in the first three games of the playoffs, as well. The team looks better each game, but this is no 10+ game marathon; it's a best of seven, and Chicago is already three games in the hole.
Is it impossible? After all, the Flyers did it last year against Boston - everybody assumed the Bruins had it in the bag, but the Flyers not only rallied but went on to the Stanley Cup Final round.
The Blackhawks are not feeling sorry for themselves and they know nobody is feeling sorry for them. They acknowledge they put themselves in this hole. They have only themselves to blame; and they only have themselves to pull themselves out of it, whether it is to salvage one more win to hold off a sweep, or whether they can do something more.
Chicago is playing for pride in game four. Pride in and for themselves, to try to extend the season another game, another game, perhaps even another series. Pride for their fans: to give the Four Feathers faithful the team effort they deserve to see.
If the Blackhawks put in an all-out effort, if they leave it all out on the ice, no excuses, then win or lose, they can hold their heads high at the end of Tuesday night, and know they put in their best effort. Blackhawks Nation, and the players, hope that means a win.
Come Wednesday morning, whether or not they're still in the running to defend their championship title, the fact remains that nobody can ever take this year away from them. It is up to the players to show that they are going to go out fighting - or maybe, just maybe, do the seemingly impossible, and do what they've done for the past two seasons.
Let's go, Hawks. Show us all you've got. The fans believe.