CHICAGO – A year ago at this time, Joel Quenneville was talking more than he wanted to about his Chicago Blackhawks “leaving meat on the table.”
What he meant was letting opportunities to gain standings points slip away in the third periods of close games, which became a bit of an epidemic for the Hawks – who were coming off the 2010 Stanley Cup title and subsequent salary-cap related roster upheaval that accompanied it.
This season, those points aren’t eluding them late in games. In fact, the Hawks continue to find ways to get one in almost every game they play of late. Five of their past six games have gone to overtime, with two ending in wins during the extra five minutes. Three have gone to a shootout and the Blackhawks have prevailed in two of them.
Chicago (19-8-4) is also on top of the Central Division with 42 points and trails just the Minnesota Wild (44 points) in the Western Conference. So what is the difference between now and a year ago?
“It’s tough to tell, but maybe at the end of games there’s that urgency knowing what we went through last year and that it was tough to get into the playoffs,” Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said after the morning skate Friday at United Center. “We understand how important the points are. Just because it’s still early in the season doesn’t mean you can wait until the end to get them.”
What happened last year was Chicago needed help from the Wild in the last game of the season – after the Hawks had already lost to the rival Detroit Red Wings earlier in the day at United Center.
Chicago needed Minnesota to beat the Dallas Stars in regulation and most assumed it wouldn’t happen because the Wild was already out of contention for the postseason and the Stars were battling with the Hawks. It was a feeling of uneasiness the Hawks haven’t forgotten and it has minfested in the way they’re playing late in games this season.
Chicago has a sterling 15-0-3 record in games that are either tied or they lead after two periods. The Hawks have allowed more goals than they’ve scored in the first two periods of games this season, but have outscored the opposition by a 32-21 mark in the third period and 3-1 in overtimes.
“You can tell that there is more urgency,” Hawks center Dave Bolland said. “We knew from last year’s standpoint that we’ve got to get these points earlier on to solidify ourselves a (playoff) spot. We don’t want to be fighting like last year, when it came down to the last game of the season to have to watch someone win or lose to be sure that we’re in the playoffs.”
That urgency, especially late in close games, has also caused some slight changes to the way Chicago plays the game at times. Getting at least one point out of every close game has become a point of emphasis. That could be a big reason the Hawks have already had 11 games go to overtime and seven of those go to the shootout.
“We’ve had so many games in a row where the game’s been on the line from start to finish that we should be excited about being in those positions and knowing that getting the game to overtime or getting points is important,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Sometimes, we’ve been fortunate recently getting two out of the deal. At the same time, in the third period … the last 10 minutes you don’t really want to change too much how you play, but let’s have an emphasis on (getting a point) and then hopefully two.”
Here’s a look at how the lineups for both the Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks might look tonight at the United Center:
Niklas Hagman - Ryan Getzlaf - Corey Perry
Andrew Cogliano - Bobby Ryan - Teemu Selanne
Matt Beleskey - Rod Pelley - Kyle Palmieri
Andrew Gordon - Maxime Macenauer - George Parros
Francois Beauchemin - Cam Fowler
Toni Lydman - Lubomir Visnovsky
Luca Sbisa - Sheldon Brookbank
Viktor Stalberg - Jonathan Toews - Patrick Kane
Patrick Sharp - Marcus Kruger - Marian Hossa
Bryan Bickell - Dave Bolland - Michael Frolik
Ben Smith - Jamal Mayers - Andrew Brunette
Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook
Nick Leddy - Niklas Hjalmarsson
Steve Montador - John Scott