At what point should the Blackhawks actually start to worry? At what point is it too trite and too optimistic to point to playoff heroics in the past and assume they’ve still got this? At what point does effort trump experience? At what point is it too late to say it’s too early?
This right here. This might be the point. Trailing 2-0 in a first-round series after a dreadful 5-0 Game 2 loss to the Nashville Predators. Having lost the first two games at home for the first time in the Joel Quenneville era. Having been shut out in consecutive playoff games for the first time since 2002. Facing a team that looks sharper, faster, hungrier.
“We’ve been in some tough spots before,” Jonathan Toews said. “Didn’t think after two games at home that we’d be talking about this already, that it’s do-or-die, but we’re going to go into that next game with that mentality.”
History still makes it clear that it’s foolish to write off the Hawks just yet. They’ve trailed 2-0 three times under Quenneville – losing to the Red Wings in the 2009 conference final, forcing a Game 7 against Vancouver in 2011 after falling behind, 3-0, and beating the St. Louis Blues in 2014. But right now, this Hawks team – despite cruising to the top seed in the conference during the regular season – bears little resemblance to those unflappable squads, and there are red flags everywhere.
They’ve gone 156 minutes, 40 seconds without a goal in playoff play, dating back to Game 7 in St. Louis last spring. They’ve lost six straight games since the last week of the regular season, when they went into cruise control and started resting players and stunting any momentum they had built up since their season-best stretch in February and March. Toews hasn’t scored a playoff goal since Game 4 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. Patrick Kane has just one since that series. Johnny Oduya looks a step slow, Duncan Keith has been uncharacteristically sloppy with the puck, and Pekka Rinne looks like his old, all-world self again, stopping 59 of 59 shots so far.
And the past 15 teams to lose the first two games at home have gone on to lose the series.
In Game 1, the Hawks were the better team for the final 40 minutes, but were beaten by a stellar Rinne and a trapping Predators defense. In Game 2, the Hawks were outplayed and outworked by a more aggressive Nashville team. Game 1 was easy to write off. Game 2 was not.
“That was frustration to a different level,” Quenneville said. “That wasn’t fun to watch. We dug ourselves a tremendous hole. Not too many positives came out of tonight’s game. Everybody was responsible, from the coaches down to every single player. We need to get out of his mess. … In all aspects, we’re a better hockey team than we showed tonight.”
Nashville sucked the life out of the United Center with a Ryan Ellis goal – a low liner from the blue line through a Viktor Arvidsson screen – at 3:44 of the first. The Predators then started to suffocate the Hawks’ offense, allowing just four shots on goal over the final 17 minutes of the period. But no longer content to sit back on a slim lead, the Predators went for the kill in the second period, getting goals from Harry Zolnierczyk and Colton Sissons. The shell-shocked Hawks were booed off the ice after the period ended.
Quenneville shook up his lines and pairings to give them some life in the third, but it was far too little, far too late, as Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala tacked on goals to put it away.
“They’re playing well and playing us the right way,” Toews said. “They’re obviously sticking to their game plan. [But] it’s about us. It’s always been about us and how we play and how we prepare.”
The scene shifts to Nashville for Game 3 on Monday night.
And already, just two games in, it’s basically a must-win for the Hawks.
“We all probably thought the series would be in a different place right now,” Kane said. “I don’t know. That’s the way hockey goes, I guess.”