-- Soon after finishing his media responsibilities Wednesday afternoon at Chelsea Piers, Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp
went down the long row of benches looking for John Scott's shoes.
It was time for a practical joke.
Sharp, smiling like a mischievous prankster, found the big guy's footwear, snagged them from off the rubber-matted floor, walked back down the row of benches, and placed them in an equipment bag. He then had a good laugh with captain Jonathan Toews as the rest of the Blackhawks started to come off the ice at Sky Rink and prepare for the bus ride back to Madison Square Garden, where they would change.
"Scott's going back without shoes on," Sharp quietly quipped as he dropped the pair of Reebok sneakers in the bag.
The Blackhawks are winless in nine straight (0-8-1), including seven in a row on the road, heading into Thursday's showdown at the Garden against the League-best Rangers. They've fallen to sixth in the Western Conference after being in first three and a half weeks ago, when they last won a game.
However, the players are not moping around and feeling sorry for themselves. The practical joke actually was a perfect example of how the players are trying to stay positive through the toughest stretch the rebuilt organization has faced since before Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews arrived for the 2007-08 season.
"There is a moment every day when we remind each other we're teammates, we're friends, we're family and we're going to pull it together," Toews said. "We're not holding any of this bad luck or these discouraging things against each other. That's the biggest thing. Something's got to give. Something's got to go our way eventually. They say if you keep doing the right things the hockey gods are going to reward you, and we're hoping that's going to happen soon."
Toews joked he has sacrificed several of his sticks in order for a reward from the hockey gods. He went on to say players are sacrificing their bodies for the goal of simply getting a win, something that has not since Jan. 20.
"We're all doing what we can," Toews added.
And yet they can't seem to get out of their own way, which makes this losing streak so incredibly frustrating.
"It's not like you punch in at the rink, go home and you're clear mentally," Sharp said. "We take our job seriously. We want to win. Everyone is concerned away from the rink."
The Hawks felt they could have and probably should have won Tuesday's game in Nashville. They never led, but they liked how they rolled four lines; how their 17th-ranked power play generated chances and seven shots on goal on its three opportunities; how their 27th-ranked penalty kill held the Predators to just one shot on goal and limited opportunities.
But Ryan Ellis' seemingly harmless shot from the right point with 5:42 remaining in regulation nicked off Duncan Keith's stick, changing direction just enough to fool goaltender Ray Emery, who couldn't close his five-hole in time to stop what turned into the Predators' winning goal.
"Crushing ending," were the words used by coach Joel Quenneville.
"It does get to be tough. It is," Hawks center Dave Bolland told NHL.com. "It's tough when you're right there. To lose one like that, that we were so close to just grabbing it, it's a tough one to take. Those are the worst ones to lose, when you know you're that close to getting this streak over with."
If it was one identifiable problem, then maybe the Hawks would have some better answers as to why they're struggling so much these days.
"I don't think there is a defining blow here or a defining moment," Quenneville said.
Chicago's goaltending duo of Emery and Corey Crawford, who will start Thursday against the Rangers, has been subpar, and its team defense hasn't done much to help them improve.
The Hawks have allowed three or more goals in nine straight games. The general assumption is that GM Stan Bowman is actively seeking help on the blue line through the trade market.
"We're looking for ways," Quenneville said. "I'm sure he's looking at options to help our team."
Special teams have not helped at all. Chicago has been outscored 7-1 in those departments over the last nine games.
The Hawks' star players aren't acting as saviors.
Kane, Toews, and Marian Hossa have combined for only four goals in the last nine games. Bolland, usually a catalyst by turning defense into offense, has three points and a minus-7 rating during the losing streak.
"My game has been rough. We've all been rough," Bolland said. "As a team, we're in that rough patch. We're going to get out of it."
The belief seems genuine. It's definitely contagious.
"We know how to win," Bolland said. "We know what this team can do."
The reminders come daily.
"You want to make sure that you can be hard on guys, and there are times when you have to be supportive," Quenneville said. "Right now we want to be supportive and encouraging."
And the players want to act like everything is normal, even though it's not even close.
"We know what a fun feeling it is going to be when we win a game," Kane said. "Madison Square Garden is not a place we get to see very often. Hopefully it's the place where it's going to end."