Darkhorse Hawks Hope For One More Playoff Push

The Blackhawks returned to practice Monday eager for their playoff chance.

Chris Emma
July 13, 2020 - 5:41 pm
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CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- Back when American society came to a halt as the coronavirus outbreak began to spread in March, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews found himself in an unfamiliar position. He had nothing but time on his hands.

Toews didn't know then whether he and the Blackhawks would be back on this ice again this season -- or even at all this calendar year. He wasn't sure how to proceed with a strict routine that he sees as "annual Groundhog Day." So, he unplugged. 

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The 32-year-old Toews took himself out of the present and found himself reflecting on the past in a way he hadn't before.

"It was good to have all this time to really sit there, really stop and have a minute to smell the roses as they say, watch some of those old games and appreciate really how lucky I've been," Toews said Monday afternoon.

There's a new opportunity ahead for Toews and the Blackhawks, who took the ice for practice at Fifth Third Arena on Monday morning just more than four months after the NHL suspended its regular season. After their playoff hopes seemed all but dashed in March, the Blackhawks were given new life with the the No. 12 seed in the Western Conference bracket in the unique 24-team NHL restart. They'll face the fifth-seeded Oilers in what the league is calling the qualifying round ahead of the usual 16-team playoff format.

The Blackhawks were 32-30-8 through 70 regular-season games and on the verge of missing the playoffs for a third straight year. Uncertainty loomed regarding the job security of general manager Stan Bowman and coach Jeremy Colliton, and team president John McDonough was fired in late April. 

Then came the gift from the NHL, which included 24 teams in its restart -- likely no coincidence as the No. 12 seeds in the respective conferences were Chicago and Toronto, two of hockey's most important television markets.

Toews referenced how the Blackhawks "were able to sneak in," which is putting it lightly. Now, they'll face the Oilers in the hub city of Edmonton, beginning Aug. 1.

"We're getting a chance to compete in the playoffs," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "You go back to the regular season where we were several points out. It wasn't looking good. Now we're in this opportunity. It's a great opportunity for us to prove that we deserve to be in the playoffs.

"As a group, we're excited to have this opportunity and show we belong. We could make some noise as an underdog."

For players like Toews, Keith, Patrick Kane and Brent Seabrook, the chance to fight for a fourth Stanley Cup championship in 11 years is all they could've asked for. While replays and memories of their past runs were frequently available to watch during the time in quarantine, they also served as a reminder of how time has seemed to pass by the core of this team.

The Blackhawks were also reminded of how difficult a run in this playoff format will be when they took the ice Monday without goaltender Crawford, who Colliton said is "unfit to play." Colliton declined to share any more details, citing the protocols around player health in the NHL's return-to-play plan amid the coronavirus pandemic. The NHL has acknowledged that 43 players have tested positive for COVID-19 but haven't identified those individuals by name.

It's unclear whether Crawford will join the Blackhawks, and the team has currently turned to veteran backup Malcolm Subban -- plus Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen -- in net.

The Blackhawks realize they're the darkhorses in this playoff format. With a loss to the Oilers, the Blackhawks would have a 12.5% chance to land the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft after the first phase of the lottery drew a placeholder card. That No. 1 pick will now go to one of the eight losing teams from the qualifying round, but the Blackhawks aren't thinking about that right now as they ramp up for the winner-take-all tournament.

"We hope we're cramming in early October for the draft," Bowman said. "It would mean we made it all the way to the Final."

Returning to the ice offered the Blackhawks a bit of normalcy Monday amid the pandemic. It felt like "another hockey practice" for the players," Keith said. The biggest difference was Colliton and his coaches skating the ice wearing masks. 

Then came the conclusion of practice as Colliton's staff removed the nets from their stanchions to make room on the ice. The Blackhawks skated laps for nearly 20 minutes, with only brief breaks in between.

It's Groundhog Day once again for Toews and the Blackhawks, who are ready for another chance to chase the Stanley Cup.

"Its so tough to get out of that first round," Toews said. "But if build that confidence and get a few wins, you really get that feeling like there's no telling how far you can go. We want to take advantage of this."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.