“Our focus will be to play the right way,” Jamal Mayers said after the final regular-season practice of the year in Detroit. “We want to play the right way and get ready for the playoffs.”
No one will argue with that, but plenty have argued whether the Hawks should truly want to win Saturday’s game -- at least in regulation -- and overtake the Detroit Red Wings for the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference. If that happens, the Hawks would take on the Nashville Predators in the opening round of the playoffs. A loss or overtime game means the Hawks will face the Pacific Division winner. Currently the Predators have eight more points than the Pacific-leading Los Angeles Kings.
Could the Predators be a tougher matchup for the Blackhawks than the Kings?
So with a win on Saturday, the Hawks technically would play a “better” team in the playoffs than they would with a loss on Saturday. The top three seeds -- regardless of points -- go to the three division winners.
“You can say those sort of things and think that, but once you get on the ice it’s still Chicago/Detroit,” defenseman Sean O'Donnell said. “If you’re looking to win the whole thing, you have to beat everyone anyway. So do you drop to sixth and play a team with lesser points but with a three or four hour flight back and forth, or do you play Nashville, where it’s easier?”
Several Hawks mentioned the shorter flight to Nashville as a reason to want to win on Saturday. At the same time, they understand the differences in the teams.
“The No. 3 seed is a team that had a worse season than us and knowing that will probably give us some more confidence,” Viktor Stalberg said. “But sometimes it’s tough for traveling. It’s kind of a coin toss. We’re feeling good about our game.”
Maybe the Hawks have last year’s opening round in mind. After getting into the playoffs on the final day of the season, they left for Vancouver the very next day. Three trips back-and-forth couldn’t have done them any favors as they dropped the series in seven games.
“I don’t think there’s any easy games in the first round,” Johnny Oduya said. “Once you’re in the playoffs, it’s a new season.”
That was the other thought echoed by many players. Who says Phoenix is so easy? Or San Jose or Los Angeles. All three teams took care of the Hawks at least once this season.
Anyway, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville isn’t hearing any of it.
“We always play to win the game, regardless, and we coach the same way,” he said.
Having said all that, there does seem to be an obvious gap in competition. Andrew Brunette said as much without really choosing a side.
“Just look at our division,” he said. “It’s like the AL East of baseball. If you get in, you have a chance. Every team is scary.”
Maybe that’s why playing out west is better than any short flight.
Minnesota’s Nate Prosser was suspended one game for his head-butt of Mayers in Thursday’s game. Mayers said he was furious after it happened.
“I was shocked to have that happen,” Mayers said on Friday. “That’s never happened in my career. I was not happy about it.”
Mayers said Prosser’s helmet caught him on the lip, drawing blood. He was kicked out of the game and the Hawks were given a five-minute power play.
“To his credit, the young kid, Prosser, did apologize to me after the game,” Mayer said.
Quenneville insists Dave Bolland and Brunette will be ready for the playoffs. Both practiced on Friday but missed Thursday’s game. They won’t play on Saturday either. Brunette has a foot injury while Bolland has an upper body ailment.
Sami Lepsito will be in the lineup on Saturday for the first time since injuring his left leg on March 6 against the St. Louis Blues.
The Wings can still earn home-ice advantage in the first round if they beat the Hawks and Nashville loses in regulation to the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night.