Facing their old coach in the final game before 11 days off, the Blackhawks lost 4-3 to the Panthers on Tuesday night at the United Center. The loss snapped a five-game win streak, but the Blackhawks remain alive in the playoff hunt, trailing the Coyotes and Golden Knights by three points with a game in hand on Vegas.
A rare off night for Lehner
It almost seems unfair to point a finger at Blackhawks goaltender Robin Lehner, given how strong he’s played this season and how many times he’s been the reason Chicago came away with two points.
But Lehner did that himself, taking some of the blame for Chicago’s loss:
“Honestly, I thought we played well. I kind of let the team down today. I should’ve made a couple more saves. I thought there wasn’t a step back at all; I just needed to find a way to stop the bleeding a little bit and pick myself up. [I] felt better and then they scored a fourth goal off the skate, but I started the bleeding with the first goal and it was unfortunate that we couldn’t stop it early enough.”
Give Lehner credit for owning up to his subpar performance. It’s unfortunate timing: Lehner had, probably, his worst start of the season in what was the Blackhawks most important game to this point of the season. There will be more important ones ahead; the hope is Lehner rises to those occasions.
Kirby Dach is back!
Or, maybe, he never left at all. Either way, Dach was noticeable in many situations and has been especially noticeable during the last few weeks. The No. 3 overall pick, who turned 19 on Tuesday, has also been getting rewarded for those efforts with three points in the last two games, including a nifty backhander over Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky’s right shoulder for Chicago’s first goal of the game.
One of the area’s where Dach has been most noticeable is in board/puck battles behind the net, where he’s used his 6-foot-4 length to shield the puck while fending off opposing defenders. It’s a skill he figures to improve upon in coming seasons as he adds more strength to 198-pound frame, making him even more formidable with the puck.
After a 13-game goal drought, the youngster is heating up — just when his team needed it.
This is just the start
Even with Tuesday night’s defeat, the Blackhawks are active in the chase for a playoff position — and should remain that way for the foreseeable future. There will be more big games ahead, more crucial chances to take two points away from teams the Blackhawks are chasing in the standings — Feb. 1 at Arizona, which holds one of the wild card spots, immediately jumps out.
There was a buzz inside the United Center that’s been far too infrequent during the past few seasons, an energy that added to the atmosphere as the game started. Joel Quenneville’s return absolutely had an effect. But after the tribute video was played and the standing ovation ended, there was a game on the ice that carried a heightened importance which has been missing in recent seasons. And, once again, the Blackhawks lost that game.
There will be more chances, though. And that feels like one of the larger remaining obstacles for this team to clear: winning a big game. It always seemed to happen under the prior regime: Chicago found a way to win when the opponent or the atmosphere raised the stakes. But that hasn’t happened yet under Jeremy Colliton’s watch. Something always seems to go wrong: defensive lapses, offensive droughts or goaltending woes as a most recent example. Eventually, if the Blackhawks are going to get back in the playoffs, they’re going to need some victories in those situations.
That’s when we’ll know this team is finally heading in a different direction.