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And You May Ask Yourself, ‘How Did I Get Here?’

Sunday’s roller-coaster ride offered reminders of how far the Hawks have come — and how much farther they have to go.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Remember what it felt like in the second period of Sunday’s game against the Lightning? Remember that overflow of optimism once Chicago took a 3-0 lead over the defending Stanley Cup champions?

Funny how quickly that all evaporated.

It departed with good reason. The Blackhawks gave up six straight goals to Tampa, ultimately losing 6-3 on Sunday at the UC. Chicago tallied three points in those three games versus the Lightning, a far cry from the 10-3 aggregate ass-kicking Tampa handed out in the first two games of 2021.

But it still feels like the Blackhawks missed out on a golden chance to secure the type of win a team headed in the right direction uses to provide evidence that a corner has been turned.

It’s crazy how much the perspectives have changed in just two months, considering the first four games of the season had Blackhawks fans eyeing 2021 draft lottery odds. Now, a playoff spot has moved beyond possibility and into probability.

Chicago doesn’t have that signature win yet — which is fine! It’s early! — and Sunday’s game would’ve been an ideal setting: beating the defending champs on home ice in front of a national TV audience.

And the way this hypothetical win would’ve been delivered was perfect, too. That 3-0 lead wasn’t the result of Patrick Kane doing things that only he can do. The first goal was the result of a sustained pressure by Chicago’s third line and was scored by rookie Philipp Kurashev. Kane factored into the scoring on the second goal but that was just a secondary assist. The primary went to a guy who was an NHL rookie last season (Dominik Kubalik) and a guy who they signed in the last offseason (Mattias Janmark).

Early in the second period, Brandon Hagel — another rookie — forced a turnover from Norris/Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman, resulting in a scoring chance that led to a Blackhawks power play. Chicago’s next goal came just as that power play expired but it was scored by — you guessed it — another rookie in Pius Suter.

We all know what happened from that point, though.

But losing leads has been a common theme this season:

  • The Blackhawks blew a 3-0 lead on Sunday
  • They blew a 2-0 lead on Friday
  • They blew 2-0 and 5-3 leads against Columbus on Feb. 23 and needed overtime to win
  • They blew a 2-0 lead against Detroit on Feb. 15 and also needed overtime to win
  • They blew 3-1 and 4-2 leads over Columbus on Feb. 11 and lost in regulation

The absences of Connor Murphy and Calvin de Haan on Sunday hurt, but both players were present for several of the collapses above. And it’s worth pointing out that Tampa won the Cup without Steven Stamkos and leads the division despite not having Nikita Kucherov this season. Injuries happen. Good teams overcome them.

Chicago’s inability to hold leads is quickly becoming its biggest barrier between mediocrity and sustained success.

Consider the way Tampa snuffed out any hopes of a Blackhawks rally in the third period on Sunday and compare that to what happens whenever Chicago has a two or three-goal lead. That’s another thing that good teams do: keep their opponents down once they’re in that position. It’s another tool this team hasn’t mastered yet and a large part of the reason why its inferior possession metrics are often referenced on this site: because improved possession quality and quantity would help the Blackhawks maintain those late leads.

It’s all part of the process. This team has wildly outperformed preseason expectations but still reminded us on Sunday that there’s still a long, winding path to navigate on the road back to Cup contention.

Lamenting the wasted opportunity to grab something more while being pleased with the progress being made do not have to be mutually exclusive thoughts. Both can be true.

And, through 26 games of a 56-game schedule, it feels like both things are.