COLUMBUS, Ohio—When the Blackhawks arrived here early Friday morning, they weren’t carrying quite as much baggage as had followed them throughout this road trip for the ages. A victory will do that, particularly a performance as therapeutic as Thursday’s 4-2 conquest of the highfalutin New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden.
A nine-game losing streak that nobody saw coming and few could explain had been snapped, and now the Blackhawks can actually enter Sunday’s nationally-televised United Center contest against the St. Louis Blues with a winning streak of two. Firstly, of course, the Blackhawks must avoid looking past Saturday’s matinee here against the Blue Jackets.
Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
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After what the Blackhawks have been through lately—or, on occasion, what they have put themselves through—it is difficult to fathom them taking anything for granted. Heard above even the screaming tunes within their locker room Thursday night, captain Jonathan Toews
intoned that a single triumph does not make a road trip, especially this frequent flyer saga. You know a road trip is long when you get to go home twice before it’s over.
When Toews was finished warning about the perils of a letdown in Columbus, he was asked what he liked about the losing streak. Toews, a bright young man, fully understood the oddball question.
“We stayed together, stayed close,” he said. “No pointing fingers. We’ll learn from it, I think. We’ll look back and hopefully realize it made us better.”
If you are a bad team and you lose nine straight games, it’s reality. If you are a good team and you lose nine straight games, it’s an aberration. But it’s still a matter of record, regardless of almosts and maybes.
“We could have won a few of these that we lost,” reasoned Brent Seabrook. “I mean, some of the pucks that went in against us, and I’m not knocking our goalies, they went through openings like this. (Configures right hand to resemble a keyhole.) Crazy. But we kept upbeat, like Coach Q, who’s pretty much always the same. No panic, no fractures.”
Goalie Corey Crawford, awarded The Belt by appreciative teammates on Thursday, concurred.
“There was a positive attitude during the whole streak,” he said. “We didn’t start trying to do other people’s jobs.”
Crawford’s counterpart in Thursday's game, Marty Biron, must have thought tales of Chicago woe were folly and fiction. Although the Rangers do not play again until Sunday, Head Coach John Tortorella opted to rest the great Henrik Lundqvist for his backup. The Blackhawks jumped him for all four goals within the opening 9:38, at which point Tortorella decided to exercise time out privileges. When the announcement was made, the crowd roared. A Bronx cheer, even though the Garden is in Manhattan.
In defense of Biron, he was not permitted to ease into this rare assignment. Toews beat him on a penalty shot at 1:05 after defenseman Dan Girardi gloved the puck in the crease. Then Nick Leddy clicked at 2:07 on a drive Biron still hasn’t seen. Toews sprung Patrick Sharp, who converted to make it 3-0 at 4:00, prompting chants of “HEN-RIK!! HEN-RIK!!” from the loving audience. Marian Hossa also was quite alone on his scoring foray. Tortorella said he never considered changing netminders. Would Lundqvist have stopped Toews, or rejected either breakaway? We’ll never know. You probably won’t see Biron between the pipes when the Rangers appear at the United Center next month but, indeed, he surrendered nothing after the Blackhawks’ impressive hurry-up offense during that ten-minute drill.
Still, you never got the notion that the visitors were in trouble, no small step for mankind considering what had befallen them since their last success on Jan. 20. Yes, the Blackhawks did hang on despite tallies by Marc Staal in the second period and Carl Hagelin in the third. But, it never seemed as though the Blackhawks were “hanging on” in a desperate sense.
We stayed together, stayed close. No pointing fingers. We’ll look back and hopefully realize it made us better. - Jonathan Toews, on the winless streak
The Rangers are the best team in the Eastern Conference, at least so far, but they were closed off by a tidy defensive posture, even during seven power play opportunities. All of them were foiled by the Blackhawks, who clogged shooting lanes, as if to emulate rush hour traffic that persists in the Big Apple at every hour. The Rangers were bouncing off an emotional victory in Boston Tuesday night, the Blackhawks pounced on them early, and never really yielded. If they were a pack of whiplashed travelers waiting for something grotesque to happen, they didn’t play like it.
But that resurrects the aforementioned topic: How does a team as talented as the Blackhawks conspire to lose nine straight games? It’s not easy. Yet, they proved it can be done. With the trading deadline near, and the Anaheim Ducks an expensive toll away in New Jersey for a Friday night tilt, Madison Square Garden was packed with important men in suits—general managers, scouts, National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, the labor leader.
Nobody had an answer about the Blackhawks’ funk. Nobody was in a mood to bury the team, either. As Emile “The Cat” Francis, a former Ranger coach, once said, “it’s a slippery game…it’s played on ice.” The next Chicago streak could be in an opposite direction, as Seabrook hinted when he extended his right arm outward and upward.
“Now, maybe we take a run the other way,” said the defenseman, who was +2 in more than 29 minutes of worthy labor with four blocked shots. “But we have to keep it going.”
The Blackhawks cannot afford to do otherwise. The upcoming schedule is daunting. After the Blues, the Detroit Red Wings are in the UC Tuesday, then Dallas, then it’s on the road again to the West Coast, where the L.A. Kings are eyeing first place in their division and the Ducks are on a binge. The Blackhawks will reflect on their nine-game losing streak and laugh about it only if they earn the right to do so.