Commentary

How far is down for Blackhawks?

Updated: February 15, 2012, 12:14 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NASHVILLE -- How far is down?

Don't ask the Chicago Blackhawks, because they are still on that painful journey of self-discovery.

After dropping a 3-2 decision in Nashville on Tuesday night, all they know for sure is that down is further than they ever thought was possible.

The loss marked the ninth straight game without a win for the 2010 Stanley Cup champions. It is a loss that suggests a much longer period of time has passed since that glorious moment in Philadelphia when Patrick Kane brought home the team's first championship since 1961.

A light year? Two?

"This was a tough loss," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said after the game.

"I thought we had more urgency in our game. I thought we had more of a purpose in our game. That's what it's going to take to get out of it and just stick with it and find a way."

Quenneville's postgame scrum lasted about a minute.

That's what happens when you go adrift. The losses, all different in their own way, have a certain sameness, and the questions about what to do and how to stop the bleeding take on a certain sameness, too.

Three times Tuesday, the Blackhawks gave up goals late in the period. Twice they bounced back to tie the game but could not rebound from the third one, a point shot by Ryan Ellis that glanced off Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith's stick and between netminder Ray Emery's pads with 5:42 left in regulation.

"It's just frustrating to have it tied 2-2 and have those kinds of breakdowns," Keith told ESPN.com. "We can't have those breakdowns."

"We showed a lot of resiliency with being down two times, but it's just a frustrating way to end it."

The losing has taken its toll on the Hawks both in the standings and emotionally.

There have been questions asked about the competency of Quenneville.

There are questions about the Blackhawks' fragility, their inability to overcome adversity, their lack of confidence.

Although they played well at times Tuesday -- outshooting Nashville 32-19 -- they still are prone to turning the puck over at inopportune times. The Predators' first goal with 1:40 left in the first period came after a turnover by the normally sure-handed Jonathan Toews.

They couldn't control the puck off a faceoff late in the second period and Nick Spaling deflected another Ellis shot past Emery for a 2-1 lead with less than three minutes left in the frame.

Marian Hossa scored his 21st on a great shot to tie the game early in the third period, but the Hawks could not solve Rinne or the Predators despite a number of good chances.

While Emery insisted he should have stopped the game-winning goal in spite of the deflection, this was a night when the goaltending really couldn't be faulted for the loss. That hasn't always been the case during this slide, but it reinforced the sentiment offered from many in the organization: Losing is a function of many things at many different times, not one simple fault that can be easily addressed.

"It's not good enough," said Bryan Bickell, who scored the first Chicago goal with a hard, low wrist shot just 46 seconds after Ryan Suter opened the scoring for Nashville. "It's really frustrating right now."

At this stage, the Blackhawks would be happy for a win of any kind, anywhere, but Tuesday's loss especially stung because it was against Nashville that the wheels started to come off for Chicago.

At the time, the Blackhawks were battling for first place in the tough Central Division, the Western Conference and the league as a whole. Then, Nashville beat the Hawks twice in a span of four days before the All-Star break. Chicago hasn't won since.

Now, Chicago has to acknowledge the almost unthinkable possibility of missing the playoffs altogether unless they find an answer to the perplexing issue of what has gone so wrong. After Tuesday's loss, they were tied with Los Angeles in sixth place in the West but just three points up on ninth place Calgary following the Flames' victory over Toronto.

It doesn't get any easier for the Hawks, who have two more games left on what has turned into a nine-game road trip from hell -- one in New York against the Rangers, who happen to be the top team in the Eastern Conference and have the best winning percentage in the league.

Tuesday's loss will do little to quell the external pressure on general manager Stan Bowman, Quenneville and the players.

"We're just finding a way to lose them," Bowman told ESPN.com on Tuesday.

These are challenging days for Bowman, who cannot sit idly by as the season slips away but similarly does not want to be drawn into some sort of knee-jerk reaction to the losses, especially given what he has seen this club do in the past.

"You don't want to overreact, but you don't want to underreact, too," Bowman said.

He noted that until those two pre-All-Star break losses to Nashville, the Blackhawks were vying for the top spot in the league.

"Which is the reality?" he asked.

The first 48 games or the past nine?

It's a fair question, but while the past nine games represents a much smaller sample, it also suggests a team that has lost what had become second nature for so long, the ability to find ways to win, to steal victories and to ward off defeat in games like this one.

So, what now?

Bowman publicly reaffirmed his faith in Quenneville saying that he doesn't believe his team's problems are rooted in the coaching staff.

"Joel's a great coach," he said.

And Bowman is generally pleased with his team's commitment to turn the corner.

"They're battling for each other. There's no dissension in the group. There's no give-up in the group," the general manager said.

"We're not far off. It's not that the elements aren't there."

And while that may true, what is clear is that this is a team that is finding out how far "down" really is.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.