<
>

Blackhawks poised for a playoff push

CHICAGO -- The 20,000-plus fans at the United Center were treated to some history Thursday night.

After nine straight power plays without a shot -- not a goal, a shot -- defenseman Johnny Oduya had the moxie to take a shot around the blue line at the end of the Blackhawks' first power play during the first period to break the ignominious streak.

Hey, a shot's a shot. A journey of 1,000 meters begins with a single slapshot. At least that's what we say on my hockey message board. Of course, the Blackhawks didn't get a shot off during the second power play, but why get all showy anyway?

In any event, a commemorative "Johnny's Shot" framed photo is on sale now at the team website.

While the Blackhawks' special teams woes continue, Chicago got closer to clinching a playoff spot by beating the first-place St. Louis Blues, 4-3, despite twice giving up goals right after scoring themselves and giving up the tying goal with a minute and a half to play. Aside from that, the defense was pretty good.

The Hawks won on a shootout goal by Dave Bolland after six straight misses, or, I guess, spectacular goaltender saves by Corey Crawford and Jaroslav Halak.

If you're like me, a carnivore of shootout strategy, you might be wondering why coach Joel Quenneville went to Bolland in the shootout.

"I asked my coaches and they both said Bolly, so I said let's go with him," Quenneville said with a hearty Quennevillean laugh. "So I got out-voted even if I didn't want (Bolland)."

Despite the third-period breakdown, the Hawks were in good spirits after breaking a two-game losing streak and winning the season series against the NHL's points leader. Chicago won the season series 4-2 against the Blues.

After the win, the Blackhawks had four games left and were in sixth place in the Western Conference, but just two points behind fourth-place Detroit and one point behind fifth-place Nashville, though both teams have one more game left.

Come playoff time standings in hockey mean about as much as seeds in a kickball tournament, which bodes well for Chicago if the Hawks get Jonathan Toews back from a concussion next week, as expected. Toews hasn't played since Feb. 19.

"I know the season series is in our favor against St. Louis," said Patrick Sharp, who scored his 31st goal of the season in the third period. "But there were a couple shootouts in there. They're a good team. they're at the top of the conference for a reason. So if we happen to see them down the line, it'll be a heck of a series."

With the playoffs getting closer and casual fans awaking from their hockey slumber, let's catch up a bit.

First up, Toews is out. Second, the Blackhawks are 43-26-9-3. The last number represents how many wins they have when I'm present, which should be worth something, even though I'm always with them in spirit. Third, the hockey regular season doesn't mean too much as long as you get in the playoffs and are fairly healthy.


Maybe you paid attention to the pathos when the Blackhawks lost nine straight, but the Blackhawks have a winning or even record against every team above them, except one. Chicago is 3-0-2 against the Red Wings, where they finish the season on April 7, 2-1-1 against the second-place Vancouver Canucks and 2-2 against the third-place Dallas Stars, whom the Blackhawks would match up against in the first round right now.

And on Saturday, the Hawks get a chance for a win at fifth-place Nashville, which is just one point ahead of Chicago. But Team Twang has strummed Chicago all season. You might remember, or might not want to remember, that Chicago lost three times to the Predators during that losing streak and then dropped an ugly 6-1 game at home to Nashville last week.

"They've handed it to us a few times here and we know we can be better in those games," Sharp said. "That's the good thing about the NHL, you often get a second or third chance. We want to make sure we play our best game and win one in their building."

Last season, the Blackhawks had to sweat out their playoff lives, losing their final game of the season to Detroit and getting into the postseason only because the Minnesota Wild beat Dallas later that day.

Now, a win over the Predators on Saturday could be a good omen and a strong finishing kick, before the Blackhawks finish up with a home and away against Minnesota and Detroit.

The real season starts afterwards. That's the great thing about hockey. Anything can happen after April 7. Maybe the Blackhawks will even score on a power play. You know what we puckheads say: "It's hockey."