CHICAGO – What was left of the United Center crowd was mostly quiet while the final seconds of an era ticked off Tuesday night. There was no big rally for the Blackhawks. No final charge.
The NHL playoffs will go on without the Hawks for the first time in a decade after they were eliminated from contention with a 5-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Injuries, aging stars and inexperience combined to sink the Hawks after a wildly successful run that included three Stanley Cup titles.
“It’s been a tough, tough stretch here,” coach Joel Quenneville said.
Quenneville was coaching Colorado the last time the Hawks missed the playoffs. The former NHL defenseman and the Avalanche decided to part ways after the team was swept by Detroit in the second round of the 2008 postseason, and he replaced Denis Savard after the Hawks fired the Hall of Famer four games into the next season.
What followed was the most successful decade in franchise history. Led by a core group of stars that included Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, the Hawks won three Stanley Cups and reached the conference finals two more times while appearing in the playoffs for nine straight seasons.
But it looks as if age and an annual dance with the salary cap finally might have caught up to the Hawks (30-35-9), who are last in the Central Division with eight games left on their schedule.
“We’ve had some terrific players and some really good teams, real good depth,” Quenneville said. “We didn’t always have good starts to the season but had a lot of options to work with as a staff. The building was rocking, and we’re good at home, and we’re successful on the road, real consistent.
“This has been the one year we’ve been unpredictable in our game, and our possession game has been the one area that we’ve nailed. This year, we didn’t get to that level we needed to get to.”
An injury to two-time All-Star goaltender Corey Crawford also contributed to the Hawks’ rapid decline. The 33-year-old Crawford hasn’t played since Dec. 23 because of an upper-body injury, and it has been a steep drop-off to backups Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube and Jeff Glass.
The Hawks also have been without top forward Marian Hossa all season because of severe side effects from medication to treat a progressive skin disorder. It’s unclear if he will play again.
“You’re always going to have key injuries,” Quenneville said. “Always going to have significant injuries, have some things go against you. But we’ve always been able to overcome them and find ways to rectify some tough situations and get back on track. This year, we’ve been unable to do it.”
The Hawks still might have been able to make a playoff run if not for their other issues. Toews, Keith and key defenseman Brent Seabrook are showing signs of age after years of long playoff runs and international play. The Hawks’ young defensemen have experienced some growing pains, and Brandon Saad has struggled in his return to Chicago after an offseason trade with Columbus.
But the Hawks just got a closer look at a possible roadmap for a return to contention.
The Avalanche are in prime position to return to the playoffs after going 22-56-4 last season. Top goaltender Semyon Varlamov is healthy again after playing in only 24 games a year ago. Mikko Rantanen has developed into an offensive presence at age 21, and rookie Alexander Kerfoot scored twice against the Hawks to get to 17 goals on the season.
“There’s a great example in the team we played today, and in how far out you can be, and how quickly you can recapture that winning attitude and that feeling and get right back in the race,” Quenneville said after the Hawks’ sixth loss in seven games.
“The playoff picture’s probably completely different than a lot of people anticipated. That’s how close teams are when they begin a year, and things can go right from goaltending to special teams to top players. There’s a number of ways where you can make a difference, and new young players are certainly a part of that equation.”