-- Just when the Chicago Blackhawks
thought they were out of their up-and-down, inconsistent play in which consecutive victories have been hard to come by, they pulled themselves back in and squandered any hope of feeling better about themselves after a strong performance Saturday night against the Minnesota Wild
That 3-1 victory seems like a year ago.
On Monday night against the New York Rangers
at Madison Square Garden, the Blackhawks jumped out to the kind of start any road team hopes for, battling for every loose puck, playing in the opposing team's zone, outshooting the home team and, most importantly, scoring the game's first goal.
Instead of skating away with a victory, which would've made two in a row, the defending Stanley Cup champions, demonstrated an equally textbook case of losing, as the team fell, 3-2, to the Blueshirts.
Instead of skating into the dressing room with a lead, the Blackhawks gave up a game-tying goal with 20 seconds remaining in the first period. Adding to the woes was the goal the Rangers scored not even a minute into the third period, when the game was tied, 1-1.
If that wasn't enough, the salt-on-the-wound dagger was delivered when, after Patrick Kane
swung all the momentum back on Chicago with a sneaky shot that resembled his Cup-winning tally, the Rangers struck again just 28 seconds later in what eventually became the game-winning goal.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville
gave the Rangers all the credit.
"We talked about how they play, we know they play hard," he said. "They work and they are hard to play against."
Even harder to play against when you repeatedly give them life.
"They're the important shifts," Quenneville said, referring to the Rangers' goals. "That’s what we got to learn. Last minute of periods, first shifts after goals.
"“It can't happen."
But it did. And while that kind of defeat isn't irreparable, the fact that those losses are representing norms, rather than aberrations, is legitimate pause for concern.
After most disappointing efforts, the temptation is to point out the positives and move forward. For the Blackhawks, each positive has a clear negative skating right alongside it.
"I think we had some shots tonight," Quenneville said of his team's ability to get the puck to the net, but quickly followed up with "but I don't think the quality was there."
Outshooting a road team in a hostile environment 35-23 is typically good news even in a loss, but according to Quenneville, "they protected the house pretty well," referring to the Rangers' ability to block shots.
The Blackhawks still sit atop the Central Division, at least in terms of points, and return home Wednesday night for a date with the equally-inconsistent New Jersey Devils
. Chicago will brings a special-teams unit that's ranked in the top 10 on both the power play and penalty kill.
The challenge is putting together a 60-minute effort and a little home cooking can propel the team to the kind of success it has been accustomed to the past few years.
As for another similar performance?
"It can't happen," Quenneville said.