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Future remains mystery for Hawks, Pens

3/24/2011

CHICAGO -- Watching the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins cap off Hockey Weekend Across America on Sunday, it was hard not to think about the fleeting nature of glory.

It is there and then it is gone. Or can be.

It was hard, as the Blackhawks eked out a 3-2 victory in a shootout, not to wonder where these two teams will be come mid-April and beyond, and whether the glory they have become used to will likewise disappear.

The Penguins and Blackhawks have combined to win 14 playoff rounds since 2008, and at the start of this regular season, it wasn't hard to imagine these two teams would collide in June to decide the 2011 Cup winner.

With six weeks left in the regular season, though, these two teams represent great uncertainty and on some levels significant disappointment as opposed to inspiring thoughts of an impending Cup clash.

"We're frustrated. This is not where we want to be," GM Stan Bowman told ESPN.com before the Hawks managed their first shootout victory after three straight shootout losses.

The victory was their third in their past eight games (3-3-2) and moves them to within two points of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

If this had been last season's squad, they would have taken the two points regardless of how it happened and moved on.

This season, though, the team's inability to find traction in the standings has been a direct result of being unable to close the deal in close games, and so Sunday's win represented more a sigh of relief than a reasonable expectation that this was how things would turn out.

Heading into Sunday's contest, Chicago was 7-20-3 when tied or trailing heading into the third period. The Hawks had been outscored 66-55 in the third in spite of outshooting their opponents in the final frame. Those 66 goals were the fifth most allowed in the league.

Sunday looked like more of the same as they scored early in the third period to take a 2-1 lead, but then allowed the Penguins to tie it on a Brett Sterling goal with 3:18 left in regulation.

Overtime provided frenetic action and Pittsburgh forward Tyler Kennedy missed a wide-open net high or the afternoon would have taken on a more somber tenor for the home team.

"I think everybody's on the same playing field in this league, you're fighting for every inch, every point. Doesn't matter if you're playing a team from the East or the West. It was a gutsy effort, the way we need to play going into tomorrow," acting head coach Mike Haviland said, referring to the Blackhawks' Presidents Day matinee in St. Louis on Monday.

The Blues, fresh from a blockbuster trade on the weekend, are 13th in the Western Conference but just three points back of Chicago with two games in hand.

In short, Sunday's win will mean little unless Chicago can follow it up with another victory Monday. That is the Hawks' lot in life.

"Every game is important now, you can say that about every loss and every win," said Patrick Kane, who scored the shootout winner on a nifty move.

"We got a big two points here on home ice, we got four of six on the homestand. I think that's probably what we'll have to do the rest of the season, win two out of three, so it's a good start," Kane said.

The notion that they could miss the playoffs just a year after bringing home the city's first Stanley Cup since 1961 is a sobering one. Yet, as uncomfortable as it is to be ruminating over actually finishing in the top eight, the Blackhawks remain a team fully in control of its own destiny.

"Obviously we still like our group," Bowman said. "They didn't become bad hockey players over the summer.

"We don't have to rely on other things to happen," he said.

The playoffs, meanwhile, are a virtual lock for the Penguins -- they are comfortably ensconced in the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference with a five-point bulge over the Capitals, whom they play in Pittsburgh on Monday night -- yet in some ways their future beyond the end of the regular season remains even murkier.

The Penguins iced a lineup Sunday that was minus captain Sidney Crosby, former scoring champ Evgeni Malkin, top-six winger Chris Kunitz, Nick Johnson , Eric Tangradi, Arron Asham, Dustin Jeffrey and Mark Letestu.

The sidelined players represented exactly half of the Pens' goal output heading into Sunday's game.

Late in the game Kris Letang felled the team's top remaining forward, Jordan Staal, with a slap shot to the head and his status for Monday's game is unknown.

Still, in the face of such adversity, the Penguins continue to impress with their work ethic and their 77 points are second only to Philadelphia.

Matt Cooke, the center of so much controversy, scored a short-handed goal Sunday and was among the team's best forwards.

AHL scoring sensation Sterling, a player who has never been able to translate his game consistently to the NHL stage, tied the game late after a terrific play by defenseman Paul Martin to create an odd-man rush from the neutral zone. Sterling has now managed points in all five games since his Feb. 10 call-up.

"Two points would have been better," Craig Adams noted after the game.

But if the view from the outside is that this must be a team always on the verge of tears given its hard luck, it is certainly not the view from inside.

"I think it's easier than maybe people think because after the first couple of days you look and you see you've got eight or nine or 10 guys out and you realize they're not coming back anytime soon, then you've got a game the next day and you've got a game the next day and you've a game after that. You learn to put it behind you pretty quick," Adams said.

Does anyone really think the Pittsburgh Penguins can win a Stanley Cup without Crosby and Malkin, who is definitely done for the year having undergone knee surgery? Probably not.

But it's not playoff time just yet and the Penguins in the meantime are forging a brand-new identity in the absence of their high-profile, high-skill stars.

"I think everyone here realizes the situation, the kind of guys we don't have in the lineup and we know that it's not going to be easy, but we trust the guys that we have in here to play within the system and then step up within the system to make things happen," Martin said.

It is a credit to head coach Dan Bylsma that this team has remained as competitive as it has been.

The idea is that even with all the stars in the lineup this was still a hard-working team. You don't win a Cup as the Pens did in 2009 without that being the case, it's just harder to see that element of their identity with so much else to focus on.

Now the Pens have been stripped down and what remains is that quality.

"Really that's been the pride of our team. What we're finding out is we play hard, we defend well, we've had good goaltending, our special teams has been good and that gives us a chance to [succeed] any given night, in any building and any opponent and that's what we've been finding out about our group," Bylsma said.