The Blackhawks' bid to make the playoffs for the first time in six years ended Thursday when Nashville beat the St. Louis Blues 3-2. Mathematically, the Hawks can no longer catch the Predators for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Despite that disappointment, the Blackhawks made significant progress this season. Last year, the team finished with 71 points (31-42-9). This season, they have 86 (39-33-8) with still two games to play.
Even if they don't win another game, 15 points is a significant improvement in the standings. In addition, this very young team (the two best players are both 19 years old) managed to stay in the postseason hunt until the final week of the campaign.
Next season, the Hawks will benefit from having gone through this playoff push. They have been in must-win mode for the last month, and they played well, having won six of their last nine games.
On Wednesday, the Hawks impressively thumped the league-leading Red Wings 6-2 in a game that featured playoff-like intensity.
It's too bad the Hawks couldn't get in the playoffs because they would likely have met Detroit in the first round. They have a 5-2 record against their rivals this season.
Down the stretch, the Hawks have played with great urgency, and they seem to have learned what it takes to win. Hopefully, they can sustain this level of play on a more consistent basis next year.
Looking back on the season, long losing streaks cost them. From December 30 through January 11, they lost eight consecutive games. During that period, No. 1 center Jonathan Toews was on the shelf with a knee injury. Despite the tremendous effort down the stretch, that losing streak ultimately cost the Hawks a trip to the playoffs.
On the bright side, the mere fact that we are still talking about the Blackhawks in April represents tremendous progress.
Hockey is back in Chicago.