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April is here, which is good news for Hawks

4/1/2010

Newark, N.J. -- As the Hawks enjoy their day off in New Jersey, there’s one question to ponder: Are they out of their funk?

If you look at the progression of the past four games, the answer might be yes. The low point, obviously, for the month of March, was the 8-3 drubbing they took in Columbus. Since then, they have slowly climbed back up the mountain, culminating in their solid 4-0 win over Minnesota Wednesday night.

Joel Quenneville didn’t panic, even after a couple of bad losses in a row. He saw something in St. Louis that he liked and said so after the game. People didn’t want to hear about moral victories but what he said was the truth: they were coming around. Now he did try some unconventional combinations, both on offense and defense. But that’s okay because he quickly went back to more common sense pairings when the radical didn’t work.

The best thing Quenneville did was start Antti Niemi in both games on this road trip. Understand this, the kid needs the team behind him from here on out. He’s not a machine. He’s a 26-year old in his second year in this country and he has a head like the rest of us. It can mess with you. Former Hawk front office guy, Rick Dudley, called him a “confidence” goaltender.

“When he feels like the organization and everybody is behind him, he plays better and with great confidence," Dudley explained. "It's what happened in Europe."

Expect Niemi to play Friday and most of the rest of the way.

I don’t think you’ll find many people that think back-to-back sub-par months of March are a coincidence. This team knows they are good and sometimes that can come back to bite you, especially at this time of year. They simply don’t have as much to play for. They are fairly entrenched in a playoff spot and not out to prove anything. Yes, everyone wants the No. 1 seed, but it’s not like fighting to get in (Calgary) or fighting to prove you’re good (Phoenix). And get this, with all the angst this month, their record in March of 2009 as compared to 2010? Exactly the same: 6-7-2.

The most telling thing said throughout this whole rough stretch came from Patrick Kane Tuesday morning.

“Ever since the Olympic break, the games have gone by slowly,” Kane said. “We had 21 games after the Olympic break and you think it’s going to go by so fast, to get to the playoffs, but it really hasn’t.”

That, in a nutshell, explains a lot.

It’s a team waiting for some bigger games. I don’t blame them too much. Many felt the same way. “Let’s just get the playoffs going,” is what I heard many times from fans and media as the Olympics came to a close. These 21 games have gone slowly and, for a good team that knows it, the effect for a while might not exactly be a positive one.

The facts can always be twisted to fit any argument. Maybe they have real problems that took a night off or maybe Niemi isn’t ready for prime time, but history usually teaches a lesson. Last April the Hawks went 6-0-1. If March 31 wasn’t any indication, maybe the lesson is learned. April is here. Time to play.