SAN JOSE, Calif. “Back when they were good, the Blackhawks used to mail it too, you know? There were games, weeks, months, it seemed, some seasons, where they hardly seemed to care. They would spend most of February and March on cruise control. By the 2014-15 season, they were so battle-tested and self-confident that petty minutiae like playoff qualification meant little to them.
Main seed? Sure, we’ll win the Stanley Cup. Six seeds? Sure, we’ll win the Stanley Cup.
The regular season is always a physical grind. But when you’ve played on the biggest stage in the most exciting games, the regular season can also become a mental grind.
“When you’re in the playoffs, you have a job to do and you put everything else aside and focus on that job,” Patrick Sharp once told me. “You don’t really care about how many games we’ve played or how tired we might be. But you feel it in training camp next year. You feel it in those ‘big’ regular season games in October, November, December and January that aren’t really that big. Yeah, the Blackhawks are going to Washington to play the Capitals in January, that’s a ‘big game.’ But it’s really not a great game when you were in the Stanley Cup final a couple of months ago. It was harder for guys to get up for the daily grind of the regular season when we got into the playoffs like this. Maybe that’s why you saw the falls in February and March.
“I don’t think ‘cruise control’ is even the right way to say it. You still want to play, and you want to score, and you want to win, but it’s almost like, shit, are we really doing this again? Here? Wednesday night in Carolina? And the other team is excited because the Blackhawks are in town. They are playing the best they can and they want to beat you. It’s hard to do it every night.”
These days, maybe Carolina feels that way when it comes to Chicago.
The current Blackhawks are in a different kind of mental rut. The kind that creeps slowly but eventually takes over your head, your neck, your heart. The kind that breeds in the midst of hopelessness and despair. The physical routine is the same for everyone. But getting over it gets harder and harder the less you have to play with. And really, what do the Blackhawks have to play for right now? Jobs? Pride? Yes of course. But it’s the last week of the season. What’s done is done, opinions have hardened, futures probably determined behind closed doors high up on the track.
The Blackhawks have lost 12 of their last 14 games, since shortly after general manager Kyle Davidson waved the white flag and traded Marc-André Fleury and Brandon Hagel. They have three games left.
You can see it on their faces after games. Just make it stop.
After a truly terrible performance in Los Angeles, a 4-1 loss on Thursday night, interim head coach Derek King appealed to his players’ pride in San Jose.
“Play for pride and respect.” said the king. “We talked about it today in the meetings. (We) should be a little bit embarrassed by what happened last game, we only got six chances. That’s not good. I don’t care how bad you are as a hockey team, you can get more than six downs in a game. They have some pride at stake, they have to get that respect back. And this is a good time to redeem yourself.”
Five hours later, King was explaining another 4-1 loss, this time to the Sharks, who were also going through the motions. The Blackhawks greatly outplayed San Jose, but they sloppy too often, turned the puck over too often, played one-on-one hockey instead of sticking to their structure too often, and seemingly every mistake ended up on the sidelines. behind your net, as is often the case. King insisted that his team is not “unprotected”, but acknowledged that “mentally, they are fried”.
“We make the game too difficult,” Tyler Johnson said.
“There’s really nothing to be happy about,” Seth Jones said.
Jones has missed the playoffs four other times in his NHL career, but this is the worst team he’s ever been on. And it bills. The misery only increases.
“Yeah, it doesn’t make the game fun,” he said. “I have been on both sides. I haven’t made the playoffs and have made it a couple of times in my career. I don’t think it came out that early, but the main thing is that we’re in that locker room together, (that) we don’t let any noise from outside come in, and we keep trying to be better and work for each other.”
Perhaps that’s what disappoints the Blackhawks the most. The Kings game was just a poor effort against a team desperate for points. The Sharks game wasn’t that bad, against a team that isn’t that good, and it ended the same way, with the same score. Hey, if trying hard doesn’t change things, why bother? That is the natural human response to this kind of loss. That’s what the Blackhawks are fighting, and that’s what they will continue to fight.
Losing could be good for the Blackhawks as an organization, as they hope to win the lottery jackpot this year or next (it can’t be both, thanks to the trade that brought Jones to Chicago) to add some fuel to the rebuild. but it is heartbreaking for gamers.
In 2018, as the Blackhawks looked at their first lost playoffs since 2007, Patrick Kane began to speak often about not letting a “loser culture” creep into the locker room. After all, part of what set those great Chicago teams apart was their unflappable mindset, their defiant belief that no amount of adversity could stop them. Kane desperately didn’t want the Blackhawks, particularly the younger players who hadn’t experienced those deep runs in the playoffs, to lose that. He fought her for years.
But that’s what the Blackhawks have now: a losing culture. Long faces after losses, empty platitudes about working a little harder, desperate reaches for moral victories. Assuming they don’t win the draft lottery this season and officially enter the Connor Bedard 2023 draft, it’s only going to get worse from here. The organizational object will be to lose. Players don’t stack, but teams do. And the players are smart enough to know when a front office doesn’t believe in them. When they are being configured to fail. Davidson will do the right thing for the team, but he certainly won’t feel that way for the players.
Now, hey, to be fair, maybe it’s not that bad. Just 16 months ago, the Blackhawks declared themselves into a complete rebuild and assembled a struggling group of young players who spent much of the COVID-19-shortened 2021 season in playoff contention until they ran out of gas late. It was the funniest Blackhawks season in years. And yes, the Blackhawks have positives to hold onto: Alex DeBrincat’s second 40-goal season, Kane’s third 90-point season, the return of a healthy Jonathan Toews, the promise of young players like Lukas Reichel and Alex Vlasic.
But that’s grasping at straws, just like King and his players do in front of a microphone night after night, trying to put a positive spin on another disheartening loss.
There are only three games left in this miserable campaign, one that began with such anticipation and hope. The routine is almost over. And let’s face it, at this point, there is no pride to save, no dignity to recover. A three-game win streak to close out the season wouldn’t change a thing, it wouldn’t make everyone feel good heading into a long summer of work and recharging. There is literally nothing to play for, something that is anathema to anything an athlete is taught from a young age.
“These are the routines that are not easy to do,” King said before the Sharks game. “These are the ones where you really have to dig in to find a way to motivate yourself, or just find a way to win that puck battle, shorten that turn, do all the little things right. And this is a challenge for us, these (last) four games.”
And perhaps the 82 that will follow. Motivation will have to come from within. Why as exhausting, as exhausting, as irritating as this season has been? The coming year holds little promise for improvement.
(Top photo of Sam Lafferty on the ice after a hit: Harry How/Getty Images)
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