By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — At this point, there isn’t much more the Blackhawks can say.
The leaders have pointed to the standard they’re failing to reach, the players have agreed they aren’t playing well enough and the coach has reminded over and over again their style of play.
Simply put, the Blackhawks (22-17-6) haven’t been themselves to this point — stuck in seventh place of the Central Division and on the outside looking in at the playoff seedings. Fresh off a bye week, they return to work against the Islanders at the United Center on Saturday night.
“It’s going to be a challenge to make the playoffs,” forward Patrick Kane said. “But we feel we have the group in here.”
General manager Stan Bowman must determine whether that’s indeed true as five weeks and change remain before the trade deadline. Chicago knew this would be a different-looking Blackhawks team, but few of the city’s hockey faithful could’ve predicted last place in the division standings.
The Blackhawks’ hopes seem to rest on when — or if — goaltender Corey Crawford can return this season. He’s reportedly dealing with vertigo- and concussion-like symptons. Coach Joel Quenneville was mostly mum on the status of Crawford on Friday, declining specifics to his health while admitting little progress has been shown.
Like so many others, Quenneville is hopeful that Crawford can return this season. What’s clear is the Blackhawks have to be better in front of backup goaltenders Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass.
Quenneville went as far to say the Blackhawks’ netminders are “probably the reason why we’re still in the race.” That’s a message to everyone else.
“One of the issues with our team has been puck management, puck possession, puck placement,” Quenneville said. “Finding ways to put it where we can arrive first and arrive on time. That’s one of our issues of controlling the game a lot more and generating more.”
Outside of a major trade by Bowman, the Blackhawks’ best hope in Crawford’s absence is prioritizing the puck — executing clean dumps, maintaining the offensive zone and avoiding undisciplined play.
From Jonathan Toews to Tommy Wingels, players were quick to accept the blame for their inconsistent play. On some nights, the Blackhawks look like the Blackhawks. Far too often, they’re unrecognizable.
Blackhawks newcomer Anthony Duclair, who was acquired in a trade with the Coyotes last week, quickly realized the level of disappointment in the dressing room. Like Wingels, he knows what’s expected of their team.
“Since I’ve been here, we’re not really happy with where we’re at right now and want to get back to the winning ways,” Duclair said. “This is a proud organization. The past 10 years, (the Blackhawks) made the playoffs. That is our goal and beyond. We’re not looking at anything but making the playoffs. We just got to keep working at it.”
Entering Friday, the Blackhawks were three points behind the Avalanche for the last wild-card spot and trailed the first-place Predators by just 10 points. Colorado has reeled off eight straight wins, the kind of run expected in Chicago.
Given the Blackhawks’ makeup, it’s no stretch to believe they, too, can go on a run and never look back. But a great deal of their fate relies on the uncertain status of Crawford. Toews acknowledged he’s traded texts with Crawford but doesn’t know much more, while other players declined to discuss the delicate situation. They’re waiting to see if he wakes up symptom-free one day soon.
All the Blackhawks can do is strive for their best form and hope it’s enough.
“We know that we need to compete harder,” Wingels said. “We need to play better. At this pace, we’re probably not a playoff team, and that’s unacceptable for every guy in this room. Every player in this organization wants to play in the playoffs and is expected to play in the playoffs. As players, we know that.
“It’s about competing better and being better all over the ice. It’s not just goal scoring. It’s away from the puck, it’s pressuring the puck, it’s defending better, it’s so many parts of the game we can all improve on. We’ve talked about it. We don’t need to break it down any more than we have. Go out there and play them.”