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Saturday, April 3, 2010
Playoff Watch: Hawks' finish will be tough

By Jesse Rogers

NEWARK, N.J. -- Every morning from now until the playoffs, I’ll give you an update on where the Chicago Blackhawks stand in the playoff race.

With their dramatic 2-1 shootout victory over the New Jersey Devils on Friday, the Hawks have their first division title in 17 years in their sights.

A Detroit Red Wings' loss in regulation to the Nashville Predators on Saturday will clinch the title and mark the first major achievement of the season. In training camp, the Hawks spoke openly of wrestling away the division from the Red Wings who have had a stranglehold on it for nearly a decade.

The Hawks' win on Friday eliminated the Predators from contention for the division but both the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks kept pace as the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds, respectively. The Hawks remain three points behind the Sharks and five ahead of the Canucks.

The Calgary Flames have caught the Colorado Avalanche for the No. 8 seed but they have played one more game than the Avalanche. The Flames visit the United Center on Sunday.

Detroit hosts Nashville on Saturday, and if the Predators have any hope of holding on to the No. 5 seed, they need to win. The Wings are one point behind Nashville but will have four games remaining after their game while the Predators will have just two. Detroit is the hottest team in the NHL, having won seven in a row.

If the playoffs began today, the Hawks would take on the Los Angeles Kings, but with the way the schedule is taking hold, Chicago and Nashville might be on a collision course. The Hawks seem entrenched as the No. 2 seed while Nashville, with only those two games remaining, could easily drop to No. 7 before the regular season concludes a week from Sunday.

The schedule is not doing any favors for the Blackhawks, in the final week. Between Sunday at 2 p.m. CT and a week from Sunday at 2 p.m. CT, the puck will drop five times for Chicago in as busy a finish as you’ll find. Included in that week are single game trips to Dallas and Colorado, plus a back to back set. Oh, and there’s that season finale against the previously stated hottest team in the league, the Red Wings.

Considering the way the Hawks were playing going into it, the just concluded three-game road trip was nothing short of great. They played even games at the St. Louis Blues and New Jersey, coming away with a win and a loss. Sandwiched between was a solid, shutout effort against the Minnesota Wild. It’s looking more and more like the problems the Hawks were having in March were due to the time of the season more than anything systematic.

The trip proved a couple things. Antti Niemi might just be ready for the postseason, and Dustin Byfuglien does indeed belong on defense. There are still some offensive issues to be addressed, starting with the power play, but at least defensively, the Hawks are coming around.

Speaking of the power play, there were no opportunities on Friday for either team. No penalties called at all. That's the first time since 2001 an NHL game went infraction-less.

If you believe in coincidences, then there is a heck of a one going on involving the Hawks and referee Paul Devorski. He was one of the refs for that infamously poorly officiated game in Anaheim on March 17. That was the game where James Wisniewski ran Brent Seabrook but only received a two-minute minor, before subsequently being suspended for eight games because of the brutality of the hit. It also was the game that Brent Sopel was clearly crosschecked in the back near the slot without the whistle being blown. That led directly to the winning goal.

It’s assumed Devorski and the other officials in the game had a nice talking to with the NHL after the game. The next night, against Los Angeles, with the same referee crew, the Hawks were not given a minor penalty in the game. The next time Devorski worked a Hawks game? Friday night in New Jersey. Again, no penalties called.

That’s no coincidence.