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Losing streak set stage for Chicago's run to history

by David Kalan

In sports, losing often forms the attributes needed to be a winner.

The Chicago Blackhawks may be the latest example of the cliché that the experience of painful losses often is a precursor to finding a way to win consistently. Yes, the Blackhawks have pocketed at least a point in 29 straight games dating to the end of last season -- an almost unheard of streak of success amid the parity that exists in the National Hockey League -- but they are not that far removed from the team that endured a dispiriting nine-game losing streak that altered the outcome of its 2011-12 season.

There, seemingly, is proof of the cliché.


Game 1: Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, Bridgestone Arena -- Nashville 5, Chicago 2

After a delayed arrival in Nashville due to a snowstorm, the Blackhawks, without injured Patrick Sharp, take a 1-0 lead, but the Predators score four unanswered goals. Jonathan Toews leaves the game early with a wrist injury he originally sustained the night before against the Florida Panthers.

Game 2: Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, United Center -- Nashville 3, Chicago 1

With Sharp still out and Toews on IR, the shorthanded Blackhawks start five rookie forwards. Nashville scores twice off turnovers in the Chicago end in the first period.

Game 3: Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, Rogers Arena -- Vancouver 3, Chicago 2 (OT)

Sharp and Toews return to the lineup as the Blackhawks' second half opens with a nine-game road trip. Despite dominating the Canucks for long stretches and ultimately outshooting them 39-33, Chicago loses when Daniel Sedin scores with 1:23 left in overtime.

Game 4: Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012, Rexall Place -- Edmonton 8, Chicago 4

Sam Gagner, who had a goal and two assists for Edmonton through 40 minutes, adds three more goals and two assists in the third period to become the 11th player in NHL history to record eight points in a game. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville says, "We should be embarrassed."

Game 5: Friday, Feb. 3, 2012, Scotiabank Saddledome -- Calgary 3, Chicago 1

Quenneville makes a change to the lineup, moving Marcus Kruger to the second line to center Sharp and Marian Hossa. It does little to spark the offense, and a power-play goal by Flames defenseman Jay Bouwmeester in the second period holds up as the game-winner.

Game 6: Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012, Pepsi Center -- Colorado 5, Chicago 2

Chicago takes a 1-0 lead on Brent Seabrook's slap shot 31 seconds into the second period, but Colorado, 0-4-1 in its previous five games, scores five of the next six goals. Toews tells the media, "We really don't know what to say at this point."

Game 7: Friday, Feb. 10, 2012, HP Pavilion --
San Jose 5, Chicago 3

Amid whispers that Quenneville's job is in jeopardy, the coach puts Corey Crawford back in net after going with Ray Emery for two games. The Blackhawks rally to tie twice, but the Sharks score two goals in the third.

Game 8: Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, Arena -- Phoenix 3, Chicago 0

Quenneville scrambles his top two lines, moving Brendan Morrison and Hossa to the top line with Toews while dropping Patrick Kane to the second line with Sharp and Kruger. The new lines help generate 38 shots, but none of them get past Mike Smith. Phoenix, once 13 points behind Chicago, pulls to within three.

Game 9: Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012, Bridgestone Arena -- Nashville 3, Chicago 2

Quenneville again tries new combinations, moving Kane back to the top line with Toews and Sharp. The trio puts heavy pressure on Pekka Rinne with 11 shots in the first period, but Nashville's Ryan Ellis scores the game-winner with 5:42 remaining. It is Chicago's third loss to Nashville in nine games.

Game 10: Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012, Madison Square Garden -- Chicago 4, N.Y. Rangers 2

Against a Rangers team playing its seventh game in 12 days, Toews scores on a penalty shot 1:05 in, and Nick Leddy makes it 2-0 just over a minute later. At 4:00 of the first, Sharp scores off a brilliant feed from Toews out of the Chicago zone, and at 9:38 Kane finds Hossa on a similar play to make it 4-0. The Rangers outshoot the Blackhawks 24-22, but the four goals are enough to end the losing streak.

-- David Kalan,
"I think that's something that we've definitely thought about," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said in St. Louis last week. "I think it was in our mind the rest of that season, and even this year we were quick to forget some of the things we went through as a team last year, and maybe not only that nine-game losing streak but what didn't click for us as a team as the season went along and how we lost in the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs. We've understood what we had to change and the details of our game. And here we are.

"All those things that make us successful as a team we weren't doing at that point of the season last year. We've all seemed to learn from that."

Toews captained a Stanley Cup champion three years ago when he was 22 years old. Patrick Kane, who scored the Cup-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 of the Final, was 21, and the two form the nucleus of both teams.

Of the 27 players who played for the Blackhawks during the nine-game slide in 2011-12, 17 have seen ice time for Chicago this season. There virtually are no differences between a team that couldn't win for a crucial four-week stretch last season and the team that hasn't lost in regulation this season -- a 20-0-3 run.

It is feasible to argue the struggles laid the ground work for the present. Probability says the Blackhawks will regress to the mean at some point and endure a string of losses, but given what happened a year ago, perhaps their incredible season-opening run is not the aberration.

It might be the correction.

"We haven't worried about any streak or anything like that," Toews said. "We don't feel that we're, like a lot of other teams, getting the bounces, playing out of [our] mind or having one thing go for [us]. Eventually that kind of runs out. For us, we've just been working hard every game and giving ourselves a chance to win. There's been no satisfaction from one game to the next."

That might be a byproduct of knowing how easily a good thing can go bad.

On Jan. 21, 2012, Chicago, winner of five of its past six games, was atop the NHL standings and hadn't lost in regulation in 15 days.

On Feb. 15, the Blackhawks were sixth in the West after a mystifying nine-game stretch in which they went 0-8-1. Nine-game winless streaks aren't particularly rare, but it is unusual for them happen to a team as good as the Blackhawks.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since the League reached 30 teams in the 2000-01 season, seven of the 53 teams to have a nine-game winless streak reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- just 13.2 percent. The Blackhawks' losing streak is even more bizarre considering Chicago finished the season with 101 points, the most by any team that had a winless streak of nine games or more since the end of the Original Six era in 1967.

It's also worth noting that none of those teams won the Stanley Cup.

Hall of Fame baseball catcher Johnny Bench famously compared a slump to sleeping in a soft bed: Easy to get into and hard to get out of. But they are even more bedeviling when a team believes it is of championship caliber. Then a slump can be particularly unpredictable and capricious.

Though there are clues as to what perfect storm created Chicago's nine-game slump in 2012, a cursory look at the stretch (inset) provides few definitive answers as to why bad things can happen to good teams.

Chicago's three-week stumble was a confluence of events out of its control. The team was delayed by a snowstorm before the start of the first loss. Toews and Patrick Sharp missed time with injuries. Much of the streak coincided with a nine-game road trip due to "Disney on Ice presents Dare to Dream" occupying United Center. There was flukiness and randomness thrown in as well, including a bizarre goal by the Nashville Predators' Kevin Klein off a dump-in in the first game of the streak, and Sam Gagner's improbable eight-point game for the Edmonton Oilers.

Unlikely as it is, any team, good or bad, can be swept up in a destructive tailspin just as easily as it can craft the best start in NHL history, something not lost on the players who experienced it.

"I think that was a big eye-opener for a lot of people, myself included," Sharp said last week. "Momentum is a big thing on these streaks as well. When you're winning games, you have that confidence in your room that you feel like your team is going to come out of any situation and you can flip that over on your back and say when you're losing games, you can have a lead and just have an eerie feeling that things are going to go against you."

When the losing streak finally ended with a 4-2 win against the New York Rangers on Feb. 16, the victory came with a four-goal outburst by the Blackhawks in the first 10 minutes. Cathartic as those 10 minutes were, Chicago's struggles during the previous nine games left lasting damage, essentially costing it favorable position in Western Conference standings.

Chicago finished fourth in the Central Division and sixth in the conference, minimizing their chances of having home-ice advantage in a playoff series. Had the Blackhawks earned points during their losing streak at the same rate they earned them during the season's other 73 games, they would have finished with 112 points, enough to edge the Vancouver Canucks for the Presidents' Trophy.  

Instead, Chicago's season ended in the first round, dropping a tight six-game series against the Pacific Division-champion Phoenix Coyotes.

Though half the 2012-13 season has yet to be played, the numbers make it hard to believe Chicago will end up in the bottom half of the playoff bracket again.

Even if there is no way to completely explain just how things went south so dramatically last February, it appears to have set the stage for the age-old cliché to come true yet again.

The Blackhawks have experienced losing; now it's time for them to win. With the knowledge of how quickly first place in the League can slip away, Chicago no is longer looking for answers to what happened in 2012. Instead, the Blackhawks are content to make people ask different questions. correspondent Louie Korac contributed to this report.

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