Time keeps ticking away on the regular season and no team is more aware of it running out than the Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks have slipped from the top of the heap in the Western Conference into a fight to hold onto a playoff spot with just 18 games remaining. They're currently sitting sixth in the West with 73 points heading into Wednesday night's Original Six matchup against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs
at the United Center -- but are just three points ahead of the eighth, ninth and 10th place teams.
The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, are having their own issues -- just one win in the past 10 games -- so it's logical to look at this game as one of those "must-wins" for the Blackhawks (33-24-7), who hit the road again this coming weekend for games in Ottawa and Detroit.
"You look at our schedule and it's a pretty tough schedule," Hawks forward Patrick Kane
said after Chicago's morning skate on Wednesday. "We've got to take advantage of the home games. It's a fun game for us to play against Toronto, a team you don't see very often. It's a fun Eastern Conference team to play against with the Original Six, Chicago-Toronto all-time series ... but the most important thing is focusing on winning the game and that's it."
Hawks teammate Patrick Sharp
said the Hawks started doing the math a while ago, when they went through an ugly nine-game winless skid that stretched into most of a grueling nine-game road trip to start the month of February.
"It's not anything new to me," Sharp said of the Hawks' playoff push. "I saw the standings during that nine-game road trip and knew it was going to be tight right down the stretch. That's the nature of our conference. It's not like we're waking up today concerned about it. It's been an issue for a long time now."
Have the Hawks also begun to peek ahead at what kind of record they might need to wind up with to secure a playoff spot?
"Not really," Kane said. "I think you can get a little bit ahead of yourself if you start doing that. For us, just take it one game at a time here and try to win every game. We know we have 18 left and our main goal is to get in the playoffs, because we feel we have a team that can do well in a playoff situation. We've kind of proven that in the last three years. That's the main goal, to get in the playoffs."
They'll have to start that quest on Wednesday night without their captain for the fifth straight game -- as center Jonathan Toews
will miss another game with an undisclosed upper-body injury that's thought to be a concussion. Toews also missed a Jan. 24 game against the Nashville Predators
, a 3-1 loss at the United Center, and the Hawks are just 1-4-0 in the five games he's missed so far this season.
"It's tough," said Kane, who will likely start Wednesday's game centering the top line between Andrew Brunette
and Marian Hossa
. "He's a great player and big part of our team. Everyone knows that, but you're going to have injuries throughout the season. You can never replace a guy like Johnny, but at the same time, if you're winning without him I'm sure it makes [him] feel a little bit more at ease and our team feel more at ease. Important game tonight, for sure."
The game will also be the Blackhawks debut for puck-moving defenseman Johnny Oduya
, who was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets
prior to Monday's trade deadline, but Chicago will be without defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson
and Steve Montador
, who remain out with upper-body injuries also believed to be concussion-related.
On the other side of the rink, the game is just as important to the struggling Leafs (29-27-7), who've dropped three straight games and came out flat at home on Tuesday night against the Panthers despite a pep talk by coach Ron Wilson -- whose name fans started calling for to be fired.
"You get frustrated [about the firing chants], but at the same time, sometimes I think if I was working a 9-to-5 job and I paid that much money to come to the game, I'd be upset, too," Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur
said on Wednesday in Chicago. "They have all the right to do that. They pay for their seat and it's our job to come out and have a better performance than that."
Florida had two goals on the board against Toronto before many inside Air Canada Centre could even get settled in their seats, which led to the firing chants.
"As much as that reflects on him, that's our [poor] playing that's really being said out there," MacArthur said. "It's just something where we're getting down early in games and we're allowing the other teams to play exactly the kind of games they want to play."
Sharp said the Blackhawks know what happened and said the Leafs will probably be even more fired up than usual to start Wednesday night's game at the Madhouse on Madison.
"They've been on a tough stretch," Sharp said. "I watched their game last night and they're going to be a hungry team coming into our building, and that's always dangerous. No game's an easy one on the schedule. We've learned that. It's going to be a fun one."