On to the Wings and a prayer
Tonight, the Chicago Blackhawks face off against their longtime rival, the Detroit Red Wings.
What has been unusual about this season is that after opening their season at home vs the Wings, the Blackhawks only saw them twice more mid-season - once in December, once in January. And now, through a fluke of this year's scheduling, three of their remaining eight games are against them, including their final game of the regular season - opening and closing the season against them.
Against the Wings, the Blackhawks are 2-1 so far. The home opener was a solid game, but a 3-2 loss following a highly emotional pre-game banner-raising ceremony. In December, despite missing some key core players, Chicago took that game 4-1. Chicago won again in January, 4-1.
It would be nice to think that Chicago could go 2-1 again for the remaining three match ups; they certainly need the points quite badly in the hotly contested Western Conference race. Detroit currently sits in second place in the WC, equal in points and a matching record (44-23-9) to third place San Jose, but with a game in hand. Detroit is not going to be eager to give away any points and risk losing home ice advantage in the playoffs. Nor will the Wings be keen to do Chicago any favors by letting their division rivals gain any points.
No, Chicago needs to do this on their own.
As of today, teams in the Western Conference will need an estimated 98 points to reach the playoffs. Chicago has 88, which means they must either win 5 of their remaining 8 games, or come away with at least a point out of any loss they take. They can't afford to go .500; they must go .625 or better, because they can't assume that other teams are going to roll over and lose on their behalf.
They did it to themselves, early in the season. Perhaps buoyed by the idea that they could make up the points in the second half of the season, points got left all over the league. A messy game at home against the Oilers in October. A heartless effort in the UC against the Devils in early November. A spectacular mess in Calgary to start off the circus trip. The meltdown against Dallas just a few weeks ago. Too many blown leads, again and again -- all totaled, a minimum of 6, but at least 10 or more points left carelessly on the table, which should have been firmly in hand.
Throughout the season, the Hawks have kept saying it would be ridiculous to think they wouldn't make it back to the playoffs. Even when plagued by injury after injury as one star player after another sat time out, the team kept peppering their stats charts with games that showed that, despite the player turnover last summer, the team still had the skills and the desire to play scary, commanding hockey - to make even strong playoff contender teams like Vancouver and Nashville and San Jose look bad.
The problem is, as it has been for months, that the Blackhawks haven't done it consistently.
The Hawks have eight games left. They face Detroit three times. They also square off against the Bruins, Blue Jackets, Lightning, Canadiens, and Blues - which means three teams in playoff contention, and two that are already making tee time reservations. But the Blues and CBJ certainly aren't going to make things easy on the way out, either.
Despite the Blackhawks irregular season, no team is anxious to face Chicago in the opening round of the playoffs - and the remaining teams they go up against are going to do their best to prevent the Hawks from getting there.