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Blackhawks fighting through mental challenges of drastic ups and downs

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks fighting through mental challenges of drastic ups and downs

Hockey is a mental and physical grind. Every sport is. But sometimes the mental part can take a larger toll on you than the physical aspect.

While they’ve been decimated by injuries this season, the Blackhawks are also trying to fight through the mental challenges of the drastic ups and downs. The second they start making up some ground in the Western Conference playoff race, the Blackhawks lose a few in a row and get knocked back down.

And it can be exhausting.

"It’s a challenge," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We want to be in the race, we want to play important games, we want to have a chance to play further. Every team goes through it, every team goes through ups and downs throughout the year, and how do you bounce back quicker? The down period in your game, how do you turn it around and when you’re playing well, how do you ride the wave longer? How do you avoid complacency coming into your game?

"It could be over a stretch of weeks, it could be even in a game. You have a good period, you’re up 3-0. Can you stick with it? Can you mentally maintain the sharpness that you need to close out a game? We struggle with that at times. That’s why we are where we are. So keep working at it."

Every team goes through its fair share of challenges. The Blackhawks aren’t any different.

But this is the second consecutive season they’ve been just outside the playoff picture but not good enough to get above the line. That’s why the Blackhawks have been stressing the importance of stringing together a big run, so they can not only make up ground but build a cushion too.

The Blackhawks didn’t do themselves any favors this past week. They lost to Calgary and Nashville, two teams ahead of them in the standings, and are eight points behind Winnipeg for the final wildcard spot. 

At this point, the Blackhawks are closer to the basement of the West than they are the playoffs. Five points separate them and Anaheim Ducks from the bottom.

There’s a lot of hockey left in the season, but the Blackhawks don’t have any margin for error. They have to get hot. And they have to get hot quick.

"Of course, it's tough," Robin Lehner said. "That's kind of the league right now. You look around the league, for the most part, everyone can beat each other. Everyone, for the most part, can beat any team but the teams that makes the playoffs, they're the ones that can do that consistently and that's not just go on runs and long winning streaks. It's not lose two in a row. Just show up consistently and work ethic and structure every night and that translates to wins because even when you have an off night, work ethic and structure gets you points no matter what. Because you're not going to have your best nights every night.

“So that's obviously, we're trying to learn and it's frustrating. Still, nothing — as you guys are well aware — how many times we've been written off this year and then climb back in? Hopefully, the next time we climb back in we keep it going. It's all we can try to do."

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Blackhawks react to losing Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson at the NHL trade deadline

Blackhawks react to losing Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson at the NHL trade deadline

ST. LOUIS — The Blackhawks aren't accustomed to being sellers at the NHL trade deadline. For a decade, they were always the team looking for acquisitions to strengthen their chances at a Stanley Cup run.

But for the past several seasons, the Blackhawks have been on the opposite end of the spectrum. 

On Monday, they declared themselves sellers by trading defenseman Erik Gustafsson and goaltender Robin Lehner to playoff contenders in separate moves to recoup future assets. And for players, saying goodbye to teammates is never fun, especially when they're well-respected.

RELATED: Did the Blackhawks play their cards right at the deadline

Jonathan Toews gave a long answer about what Lehner and Gustafsson meant to the team, both on and off the ice.

"Losing Lenny, losing Gus, I think those two guys have meant a lot to this team in the short time they've been here," Toews said. "Lenny came in right away and sometimes you're not too sure how those strong personalities are going to fit into a locker room, especially right away. A lot of guys kind of dip their toes in the water when they come to a new team but Lenny just jumped right in. Right away, you could tell he was genuine and he cared about winning and he brought a lot of leadership to the room.

"I told him many times, too, that he helped me as a captain. I think he helped some of our veteran guys that have been here a long time kind of wake up to get back to what makes us good players and good leaders, and try and get this team going in the right direction. He brought a lot in the short time he was here. Even today you feel that absence. Wish him the best.

"Same goes for Gus. He was one of those guys that had a ton of skill and just kept getting better every single day. Obviously, he's the type of player that has a ton of upside and he's going to keep getting better as he goes along. Calgary's getting a really good player and a great teammate with him."

Patrick Kane echoed those sentiments.

"You have mixed feelings," Kane said. "Thought those two guys that we traded away were really good players for our team. It's never fun to see teammates go, so there's definitely some mixed feelings there."

That's the difficult part of the business. The Blackhawks understand that. That doesn't make it any easier to accept reality.

"You never like to see friends leave," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "As teammates, that's tough, and both guys are very well-liked and played well for us. But at the same time, we're trying to collect assets and make the team better long-term. So, understand that."

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Did the Blackhawks make the right moves at the NHL trade deadline

Did the Blackhawks make the right moves at the NHL trade deadline

ST. LOUIS — The Blackhawks were always going to be sellers leading up to the NHL trade deadline but the question was to what degree? Chicago got its answer on Monday.

After a quiet morning, the Blackhawks struck two deals in the final hour: Erik Gustafsson to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a third-round pick in 2020 and, more notably, Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights for a second-round selection in 2020, goaltender Malcolm Subban and defenseman prospect Slava Demin. The Blackhawks also retained 50 percent of Lehner's salary in a complicated three-way deal that saw Toronto eat 44 percent of that for a fifth-round pick in 2020 to help Vegas become cap compliant.

The immediate impressions on the return? Pretty underwhelming. But at the same time, the market didn't favor the Blackhawks by any stretch.

The Carolina Hurricanes had two first-round picks and were desperate to acquire a goaltender at the deadline after relying on a 42-year-old Zamboni driver to get them through their last game. No doubt the Blackhawks were hoping to land at least a first-rounder for Lehner but if the Hurricanes weren't biting on that price tag, neither was anyone else.

Six first-round picks were traded in February and not one of them was moved for a rental player. Five of those skaters had terms left on their contracts and the other signed a long-term extension after the trade to help justify it.

[MORE: Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Trade deadline recap plus Stan Bowman 1-on-1]

the reality is that the decision came down to whether the Blackhawks wanted to risk letting Lehner walk for nothing this summer, or take the best offer on the table and accept that they won't get 100 cents on the dollar, especially if they weren't seeing eye to eye on a potential extension. They chose the latter. Whether the Blackhawks should have re-signed Lehner is a separate discussion but both sides can always revisit things on July 1 if they choose.

It's also difficult to get excited about the return for Gustafsson after several similar impact defensemen were traded last week for more, and rightfully so. Did the Blackhawks wait too long to move him? Probably. But he wasn't going to fetch much on his own to begin with, and you have to wonder how hard the Blackhawks tried to package Gustafsson with another asset to sweeten the deal and get the first-round pick they were looking for.

There's a large portion of the fanbase who felt Gustafsson should have been dealt in the summer when his value was highest after he turned in a breakout 60-point campaign. And that's fair. But the Blackhawks were hoping to make the playoffs this season and subtracting a key piece from their roster wasn't something that would have aligned with those goals.

In the end, the Blackhawks went into trade deadline day hoping to recoup some draft picks and prospects, and continue building from within. They did that.

But the expectation in Chicago was that this could have served as a prime opportunity to restock the pipeline with future assets and get fans excited about the retooling process. And while the Blackhawks didn't exactly strike out, they didn't hit a home run, either.

"The goal was to try to get some asset value in return for them and we certainly did that," GM Stan Bowman said in a conference call. "Going into a period like this at the trade deadline, you have to try to manage your assets going forward. When you have expiring assets and you talk around the league to teams and find out if there’s interest in them, then you do your best to try and get the maximum return you can. "

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