CHICAGO – Hooray for the Minnesota Wild!
Those Country Christmas uniforms never have looked so lovely as on Sunday night, when the Wild were closing out the Dallas Stars, 5-3, and helping the Blackhawks into the Stanley Cup playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
So, despite being pushed around Sunday at the United Center in a 4-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, the Hawks will fight on as the eighth-seeded team in the NHL’s Western Conference playoffs.
They’ll run smack into the Vancouver Canucks and goaltender Roberto Luongo, their most hated rival this side of Detroit.
Ah, Detroit. Not content only to ruin the banner-raising ceremony to start the Hawks’ season, the hated Red Wings wanted to ruin it’s end for the United Center crowd of 22,046, as well.
They nearly did it, outhitting the Hawks, 35-15, in addition to beating them on the scoreboard. Instead of playing themselves into the No. 5 playoff seed, the Hawks lost in regulation, leaving players, including captain Jonathan Toews in shock.
“It’s unreal to be here,” Toews said after the loss. “The fact that we’re completely at another team’s mercy right now ... I can’t believe it.”
A few hours later, Dallas found out how hard it is to win five games in a row in the NHL, and the Hawks (44-29-9) were spared from becoming only the fifth team in the post-expansion era not to earn a chance to defend its Stanley Cup title in the playoffs.
Whew. After several hours of helpless panic, the Hawks’ record is 0-0 again and anything can happen.
This team won’t be anyone’s favorite to win the Cup again. They’ve replaced players such as Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg with the likes of Fernando Pisani, Viktor Stalberg and Ben Smith.
But there’s no reason to think that the Hawks can’t beat Vancouver a third, and perhaps most gratifying, time.
The biggest names remain with the team. The core of playmakers including Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, are still there and still dangerous.
The Hawks have been playing must-win games for more than a week. Their loss to the Wings came after they won a couple of must-win games against St. Louis and the Wings.
The Hawks made one too many mistakes Sunday, but they battled from the opening puck drop until Keith’s one-timer try from point-blank range in the game’s last second.
After a 97-point season, the team belongs in the playoffs. They’ve overcome injuries and adversity, they have solid leadership, and they are the defending champions.
The intensity of the playoffs ought to feel similar to the past week for the Hawks, who have been playing high-pressure games at least since Tuesday’s overtime loss at Montreal.
It doesn’t matter how many points the Canucks have – it’s an NHL-best 117 this season, incidentally – they have the defending champions on their hands, and there’s real enmity between the Hawks and ’Nucks.
This should be fun to watch.
• Eric Olson is the Northwest Herald sports editor. Reach him at 815-526-4554, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.