The Chicago Blackhawks clinched a berth in the postseason with a 5-4 win over the Nashville Predators on Saturday night, but like everything else this year they didn’t make things easy on themselves. After the Hawks built a 4-0 lead, Nashville stormed back to tie it in the third period.
Who said it was supposed to be easy?
The Hawks played the last quarter of the season without their best player and, in fact, shocked the hockey world by getting into a position to battle for home-ice advantage in the opening round. They’ve gone 12-5-2 without Jonathan Toews and now 2-1-1 without Duncan Keith. That’s more than just a little impressive.
“We really helped ourselves during a tough stretch there,” coach Joel Quenneville told reporters after the game. “When you looked at our schedule and you looked at our opponents, the position we were in at that time, things turned around in a nice way. … Obviously a huge win tonight to clinch it.”
The “position the Hawks were in at the time” was precarious. It wasn’t long after they broke their nine-game losing streak that Toews left the lineup. They were thin at center and so Patrick Kane took over on the top line. His play, along with the addition of Johnny Oduya on the blue line, helped make the postseason a reality.
“We still almost had to go 80 games to get in the playoffs, but you’re there now, the focus is keep getting better as a team,” the veteran Kane said.
After dispensing of some power-play woes -- they scored twice on Saturday with the man advantage -- the Hawks might be down to one thing left to fix: pushing bodies out of Corey Crawford's way.
“When they got one, they got momentum,” Viktor Stalberg said. “They took advantage when we were running around a little bit. Good for us getting it back though.”
The Hawks got it back thanks to a great pass from Andrew Shaw to Brent Seabrook for the game-winning goal. But before that, the Predators scored three times with men standing in front of Crawford. Patrick Hornqvist, Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn aren’t exactly as big as former Hawk Dustin Byfuglien but there they were blocking Crawford. Only Radulov's up-the-gut score was one you could give the opponent total credit for.
But the firepower the Hawks showed is the reason they’re in the playoffs.
“We had some tough stretches [this year], we had some good stretches,” Seabrook said. “It’s nice to see this team rally around some injuries. It’s been great to see everyone rally and clinch with three games to go.”
And with the news that Toews is nearing a return, maybe everything is coming together for the Hawks. But that’s for the coming weeks to decide. For now, the Hawks can be proud of what they’ve done since the long losing streak and missing their captain. They persevered. And this time they didn’t have to wait until after Game 82 to know they’ll play on.
“Last year was nerve-wracking,” Quenneville said. “[Tonight] was a great game. Very entertaining. I’m sure the fans enjoyed the game. A little nerve-wracking for coaches but good pace.”
And a better-than-good result.
Stalberg reached the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career. Patrick Sharp scored his team leading 32nd goal of the season.
The Hawks won just 32 percent of the faceoffs. Sharp and Marcus Kruger combined to go 3 for 24 in the circle.
Bryan Bickell led the Hawks with seven shots on goal.
Seabrook has three game-winning goals this season, tied for fifth among all defensemen.
After the game, Quenneville confirmed Toews has been cleared for contact, clearing the way for a possible return later next week.
The Hawks can finish no lower than sixth in the Western Conference.