For the first time since the 2016-17 season, playoff hockey was back in Chicago. Well, actually Edmonton, but the city was able to feel the postseason buzz again.
The Blackhawks weren’t going to make the playoffs before the NHL put its season on pause March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s just the reality.
But they did make the most of their opportunity in the 24-team tournament by beating the No. 5 seed Edmonton Oilers in four games of the qualifying round and going five games with the No. 1 seed Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before getting eliminated.
"If things had gone the way they were supposed to — before this entire situation — we wouldn't have had a chance to play in the playoffs," Jonathan Toews said following a 4-3 loss to Vegas on Tuesday. "So it was a great opportunity for us to come in and play some meaningful hockey, and a lot of guys stepped up the plate and showed what they can do."
You can call the Blackhawks a lot of things. But you can’t say it’s a team without character.
The Blackhawks planted their flag as the No. 12 seed by dominating Edmonton in Game 1. They turned back the clock and channeled some late-game magic in Game 3 before ending it in Game 4. They deserved better than going down 3-0 to Vegas, but still found a way to take it to the final seconds of Game 5. They fought back every time they were punched in the mouth but were ultimately outmatched.
"I just like that we never gave up," Patrick Kane said. "That’s been kind of our motto all year. ... It just feels weird to be done."
The Blackhawks have a lot of holes on their roster, starting with the defense. They gave up the most even-strength scoring chances on a per-60-minute basis for the second straight year but got bailed out by stellar goaltending.
Fixing those issue should be priority No. 1 this offseason (again). But the Blackhawks did learn some things as a group this postseason.
"It was just good to see us take that next step in that team game, to play the way we need to play to win a playoff series and compete against an elite team in Vegas, the top seed," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "I thought we were right with ‘em in most of the games here. It was just nice to see us improve and take that step. There's more to come and we've got to use this experience to improve and understand the standard that we need to get to to beat a team like this. I think that's just the biggest thing, nice to see us take that step."
The Blackhawks have a long way to go before they're perennial playoff contenders again. But this postseason experience was a good start, especially for a team that had the youngest roster of any in the tournament with an average age of 25.6.
"Yeah, absolutely," Kane said on whether the Blackhawks could use this postseason run as a building block. "It’s obviously good experience. It’s a whole other level when there’s fans in the building, but still, to play in these playoff games for guys that never done that, it’s a huge way to get experience for those guys. I think we can build off this, too, as a team.
“I’m not sure what the team will look like come next year but the young guys that got a chance to play in the postseason hopefully they’ll take this as a valuable learning lesson. We can get better as a group from it."