By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) — And that’s how you win a meaningless game in April without two of your biggest stars.
The Blackhawks ended a three-game losing streak Thursday night by holding on to beat the Wild 3-2 in a shootout, but let’s be honest, the game didn’t much beyond guaranteeing that Minnesota won’t catch the Hawks in the standings.
These six games in April are about as useful to the Blackhawks as preseason games. Head coach Joel Quenneville gets that. So should you.
That’s why Jonathan Toews is being held out the rest of the regular season, even though Quenneville said he would have played Thursday night if it was a playoff game. And that’s why the Blackhawks didn’t hesitate to put Patrick Kane on injured reserve, even though he could return to the practice ice as soon as Friday.
With the standings set up the way they are, the Blackhawks are essentially guaranteed to play the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs. The only thing on the line is home ice advantage, and the Blackhawks have rightly decided that the health of their hockey team is much more important than which team gets an extra home game in a series the Hawks should win in less than seven games anyway.
That goes beyond just Kane and Toews, as defenseman Johnny Oduya popped up with a lower body injury and was held out Thursday night at the last minute.
“He didn’t feel right coming out of warmup,” Quenneville said after the game. “I don’t think we are going to play him tomorrow night (in Columbus). Day-to-day. It’s not serious.”
Not serious. Those are the same words Quenneville uttered about Toews, but right now it’s fine if those words only mean “not missing any playoff games.”
There are some that worry Kane and Toews will be “rusty” when they return, but haven’t those two earned the benefit of the doubt by now? You might point to Toews struggling in the first round against the Coyotes two years ago after missing nearly two months with a concussion, but rust wasn’t really the problem in 2012. Health was. Toews wasn’t 100 percent when he came back. If anything, he should have sat longer.
And that’s why it’s understandable to worry about Kane and Toews being 100 percent healthy once they return in the playoffs, but that’s even more reason why they shouldn’t be playing right now.
Consider this stretch of games the preseason to the playoffs. And don’t worry about the losses.
Sure, it was a little uncomfortable to see the Stanley Cup champions lose three in a row before Thursday night’s win over the Wild, but smart hockey fans know the game changes in the playoffs and with Kane and Toews back, the Blackhawks will have as good a chance as any other team to win the Cup.
For now, caution should be the word of the month for the Blackhawks. At least until the playoffs start.
“We’re stressing making sure simplicity is a priority right now,” Quenneville said. “Something we might say a little bit more right now than we normally do. Encourage these guys to play well offensively, but want to make sure (they know that) trying to manufacture leads to trouble sometimes. Safety is the probably right way to approach it.”
Kane’s knee injury and Toews’ apparent arm injury served as reminders of what’s really important and the Blackhawks were lucky neither injury was worse.
Thursday’s lineup may have had a Rockford IceHogs feel to it, and if it were legal, general manager Stan Bowman might actually have the IceHogs play the final five games of the season.
But they can’t sit everyone, which is why there will still be some risk playing guys like Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa the rest of the way.
If there’s any meaning in during this final stretch, it’s getting guys like Bryan Bickell going before the playoffs. Bickell was playing well before an upper body injury sidelined him for a couple weeks, and Quenneville had to be pleased to see him score again Thursday night. For Bickell, it’s not about knocking any rust off. He’s been so inconsistent this season, it’s just a matter of getting his level of play raised to a playoff-caliber level.
“I thought I was playing some of my best hockey this year going into (the injury),” Bickell said. “I need to bring my mindset from where I was to right now and I think tonight was a good step.”
As for Kane and Toews, rust isn’t going to keep them from playing at a playoff-caliber level. The only thing that would hold them back is health.
And the prescription for that right now is rest, rehab and more rest. The Blackhawks are handling this the right way.
Adam Hoge is a senior writer for CBSChicago.com and a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.