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Extremely tight West race could leave Hawks in cold

by Brian Hedger /
CHICAGO -- If the Stanley Cup Playoffs had started on Wednesday, the Chicago Blackhawks wouldn't even get a chance to defend their championship from last season.
Before Wednesday's games, the Hawks found themselves in ninth place in the Western Conference -- on the outside of the playoff field with 35 points. Los Angeles and San Jose would both qualify with 35 points, while Phoenix (34 points), Columbus (34 points) and St. Louis (33 points) would also be left out.

It's not a position the Hawks figured they'd find themselves in after 32 games as they try to repeat as Cup champions, but it's the cold, hard reality of their situation regardless.
"I'd say right now, there's 13 teams (in the Western Conference) that think they're going to be in and maybe even 14," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "That's probably how it's going to play out all year long. Certainly, the final picture, who knows how it's going to be? It can unfold later on where maybe it becomes clear, but right now we've got to believe (making the playoffs) is our objective and that's our goal and we've got some work to do."
Indeed, the Hawks do need to get hot over the last 50 games of the season if they want to get to the 95-point mark that Quenneville previously estimated would likely be necessary to make it into the final field of eight teams. That means Chicago needs to come up with 60 points over those final 50 games, starting with a home game tonight against the Colorado Avalanche -- who are in fifth place in the Western Conference with 36 points after 30 games played.

"We've just got to focus on the short-term, because this race here is going to be an amazing race," Quenneville said. "Everybody is going to be intense as we go along here, but I think the big picture is tonight's game, one period at a time, because we've got a competitive team on the other side that's in the same boat as we are."

In fact, it was the Avs who bumped the Hawks into this position on Monday in Colorado with an impressive 7-5 comeback win against Chicago -- scoring three late goals to decide the game. Now the Hawks get a chance tonight to flip the table around, which they'd love to do.

"Going into that game (on Monday) and then coming out of it, the difference of two points is like a four-point swing," Quenneville said. "There's a lot of difference in that outcome."

There's also a lot of difference in the Hawks from what they were -- and where they were in the standings -- a year ago. In an effort to get the roster under the League's hard $59.4 million salary cap this past summer, Chicago opted not to bring back 11 players either through trades or letting them sign elsewhere through free agency.
The Hawks try to play the same style they did last season, but they're still searching for on-ice chemistry -- not to mention somehow bridging the gap of NHL experience lost. Those factors appear to have hurt most in the third period of close games.
"It's a different team this year and everybody has to realize that," said Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith, who is minus-11 rating this season. "It's a different group of guys and you play different. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a good thing. We've have new guys and we've been talking about this for awhile now but it's what it is."
It's also been extremely frustrating, especially since the Hawks were actually close in a number of games that would have garnered additional points in the standings. Chicago has lost seven games in regulation when either leading or tied after two periods, and those missed opportunities are hard to forget.
"We've dug ourselves a hole here (by) not putting points away that we had," Queneneville said. "We can probably count six that we left on the table early, and it's a whole different place where we're at today. That's probably the gravy that we might probably be wishing for later."
It would also be nice to have a full, healthy team playing together for more than a week or two. Two separate injuries to star forward Marian Hossa plus key injuries to center Dave Bolland, defenseman Brian Campbell and forward Patrick Kane have really challenged a team that had questionable depth in the first place.
All of that has stacked up to what's likely to be a heated race for a playoff spot for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"Hopefully we can get a stretch where you don't feel like you're playing Game 82 to get into the playoffs," Quenneville said. "But the way it looks right now, it's probably going to be like that for a number of games."
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