CHICAGO -- The question was barely out before Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville cut the reporter off.
Would the Hawks be better suited securing the sixth seed in the Western Conference rather than moving up?
“You have to be careful what you wish for,” Quenneville said after his team’s 5-2 win over Washington on Sunday. “In our business that’s one thing you never discuss. You’re always looking to move ahead and don’t feel comfortable. You look at how many teams are pushing forward in our conference, everyone has been winning lately. We’re not comfortable in that area at all. Let’s just keep trying to take care of our own business and look ahead.”
In other words, thinking about a lower seed rather than a higher one can only get you in trouble. It’s not in a coach’s makeup to think differently. But the rest of us can.
Under the current playoff format, the three division winners automatically get the top 3 seeds in the conference, no matter the point totals of the non-division winners. Unless something changes in the final weeks of the season, places 2-4 in the Central Division will all have more points than the first-place team in the Pacific Division. It means the sixth seed will play a team (the No. 3 seed) with possibly 10 or more fewer regular season points than the No. 4 and 5 seeds. That’s unusual.
“We’re just looking ahead,” Quenneville said. “Trying to win the next game. I think that’s the smaller picture that we’re focusing on. The bigger picture kind of changed a lot when we went through that stretch of losing a lot of points ... I see some of our team habits starting to improve. At the end of the day if we keep picking up points, maybe the picture changes.”
The fact that we can discuss the “picture changing” in a favorable way is an upset. The thought of catching either Nashville or Detroit in the standings was unthinkable a short time ago, but as of Monday, the Hawks are just four points behind those two teams though they both have a game in hand. It’s still doubtful the Hawks will catch them because Chicago is probably due for one more short lull before the postseason begins -- but at least it’s a possibility.
It’s a possibility because the Hawks are finally playing the game the right way and they’ve even taken special teams out of the equation. That’s the one unsure area of the Hawks' game right now but by taking few penalties they are simply winning games five-on-five. And they’re doing it by scoring early and dictating the pace the rest of the way. You can do that with leads.
The addition of Johnny Oduya has made a big difference. Plenty of observers -- including this blog --believed one defenseman couldn’t make a big impact. But of course it’s not just his on-ice play that has helped, it’s the trickle down and up effect that’s played a part as well. Brent Seabrook is playing his best hockey of the season since being reunited with Duncan Keith. And the pressure is off Niklas Hjalmarsson as he finds his game coming back from an injury. There are still hairy moments for Nick Leddy as a young defenseman but those are bound to happen no matter who he plays with. The Hawks are 7-1-1 with Oduya in the lineup. Though it’s not all to his credit, it’s also not a coincidence.
“Johnny Oduya’s come into our lineup, I think he changed a little bit of the complexion of our back end,” Quenneville said Sunday. “Across the board I think everybody’s been more consistent in their individual games, complementing our team game.”
Back to Quenneville’s arguments about the playoffs, they make sense of course. Asking the hockey gods to place you in a lower seed rather than a higher one is asking for trouble. For example the Red Wings were nearly unstoppable at home this season winning an NHL-record 23 consecutive home games. If the Hawks have a chance to take home-ice advantage in case they meet in the playoffs, they need to take it, right? No one will be happy that the Hawks rolled Dallas if Game 7 against Detroit is in Motown.
More important than moving up in the standings, though, is how the Hawks' current situation affects the return of Jonathan Toews. Is there any doubt -- considering the input the player has when it comes to concussions -- that if the Hawks were mightily struggling right now, Toews would be pushing the envelope for a return quicker than he is now. If he’s as competitive as we know him to be we’d be surprised if he wasn’t.
The Hawks are 8-4-1 without Toews which means he can take his time in returning.
Quenneville and Hawks Nation can agree on one thing: The team can set its sights on sweeping the season series from the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday night and letting the chips fall where they may. If the last few games are any indication, they’ll be just fine.