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One Minute Remaining: Mission Possible?

by Staff Writer / Chicago Blackhawks

When March begins, the Blackhawks will have 19 regular season games left -- 10 on United Center ice.

Is it possible to make post-season play if your team starts March below .500? A good person to ask is coach Denis Savard.

When Savard broke into the NHL as the Hawks' #1 draft pick in 1980, his team finished February and the season below .500, but made it to the playoffs in what was then a 21-team league. In the '81 playoffs, the newly transplanted Calgary Flames, moving from Atlanta, ousted them.

In 1989, Savard and the Hawks ended February 10 games below .500 (22-32-10) and made it to the conference finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions Flames.

The last time that Chicago ended February with a losing record and still made the playoffs was Savard's final season as a player, 1996-97, as the Hawks bowed to the then defending champion Avalanche.

It is a 30-team league now with a lot more parity and competition. But if the Hawks end the month below .500, can the "near impossible" be reached in the final 19 games?

Looking at the season, it is easy to say key injuries cost the team a lot of wins. On the other hand, several teams can say the same thing. But when you lose your #1 goalie (Nikolai Khabibulin), your top scorer (Martin Havlat) and your captain (Adrian Aucoin) for long periods, it takes a lot out of you.

When healthy, the results speak for themselves.

Failure on the power play and losing too many games by a single goal have really contributed to establishing a consistent winning streak. On the plus side, the penalty killing has maintained itself in the upper half of the NHL.

Coming from behind after trailing going into the 3rd period more than a half dozen times and winning on the second part of back-to-back games are major improvements.

When their veterans are sidelined, including "old-timer" Jim Vandermeer (26), the Hawks have the youngest corps of defensemen in the NHL, which can lead to more ups than downs.

Last season there were 27 new faces that played for the Hawks and there already have been 20 this campaign in addition to having a new head coach in Savard.

If the Hawks head into March below .500, is it an impossible mission? Since he was around the last three times the Hawks overcame that situation to get into post season play, Savard would surely be optimistic.

Naturally, I hope the team can end the month above .500 and continue to challenge for a playoff slot to make it a mission probable!

Harvey Wittenberg served as the Blackhawks' Public Address Announcer from 1961 to 2001 and is currently a contributor to Buy Harvey's book -- Tales from the Chicago Blackhawks.

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