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Updated: March 23, 2014 11:02PM
Joel Quenneville has spent much of the past couple of weeks downplaying the Blackhawks’ chances of catching the St. Louis Blues for first place in the Central Division, and the Western Conference. But when he flipped on the Blues-Penguins game on Sunday afternoon, he was just starting to feel good about it again.
“It was better before the game started,” he said.
It only got worse from there.
First, the Blues beat the Penguins. Then the Hawks turned around and lost another game they couldn’t afford to lose, 2-0 to Nashville.
Despite dominating possession all game, and despite outshooting the Predators 29-17, the Hawks lost to the last-place Predators for the second time in nine days.
“We know points are at stake, and we want to keep getting those points, but we left two on the table tonight,” defenseman Duncan Keith said. “For whatever reason, we’ve had trouble against these guys.”
Against much of the division, really. The Hawks have lost three of four to the Blues, three of four to the Predators, three of four to the Wild and four of five to the Avalanche. That last one is a big reason why the standings are so important — if the Hawks remain in second (or third) place, they’re almost certain to face the young, speedy Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs. If they could somehow get ahead of the Blues, they’d likely draw either Phoenix or Dallas, far more palatable opponents.
So there’s far more than pride and a banner at stake. But now the Hawks are six points behind the Blues with 10 games to go, while St. Louis has a game in hand and the tiebreaker (non-shootout wins). After closing the gap from nine to four points over the past week, first place is once again looking all but out of reach.
“It’s about how we play, and focusing on playing well enough to get two points every single game,” Jonathan Toews said. “And if we do that, the standings will take care of itself.”
That said, the Hawks didn’t sound terribly worried after Sunday’s loss — more frustrated than anything. Just like they did nine days ago, the Hawks dominated possession, outshooting the Predators 29-17. But a second straight fruitless night on the power play (0-for-9 in the two games since Patrick Kane was injured) and a typically stellar effort from Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne (29 saves for his first shutout of the season) doomed the Hawks this time.
The Hawks had great chances early, but couldn’t capitalize. Meanwhile, Mike Fisher redirected a Ryan Ellis pass past Corey Crawford late in the first period, and Gabriel Bourque took advantage of a defensive miscue by Brent Seabrook to score late in the second. That’s all Rinne and the defensive-minded Predators needed.
“They scored first, and what happened after was exactly what happened the other day,” Quenneville said. “They get the lead and they go into a check-fest. And they check well.”
As for the power play, Kane’s absence likely has plenty to do with it. But he’s not coming back until the playoffs, and time is short.
“You’re going to have stretches where it’s very good and very effective, and you’re going to have some stretches where it dries up,” Quenneville said. “But we’re going to need that thing going here soon.”