LOS ANGELES — Six months and 246 periods after the Blackhawks opened a season of uncertainty, with six rookies in the opening-night lineup, they wrapped up the second-winningest regular season in franchise history with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday afternoon.
They finished with 50 victories, just two shy of the team record set in 2009-10. They finished with 24 road wins, matching their most ever. They finished with six 20-goal scorers. With Richard Panik emerging as a top-line power forward with 22 goals. With Nick Schmaltz a confident, playmaking star in the making. With Ryan Hartman a versatile, surprisingly productive 19-goal scorer. With the top seed in the Western Conference.
And none of it means anything now.
The games count starting next week, likely Thursday, when the Hawks open up the Stanley Cup playoffs at the United Center against the Nashville Predators, who suffered a stunning last-second loss to Winnipeg on Saturday to lock in the second wild-card and a first-round date with Chicago. The last two times the Hawks played the Predators in the first round (in 2010 and 2015), they won the Stanley Cup.
And despite a meaningless 0-2-2 stretch to close the season, the Hawks feel ready to go.
“Absolutely,” Jonathan Toews said. “That energy, that ambition, that motivation is back. We have that feeling again that every single moment, every single game matters. It’s a lot of fun to pay this time of year. It’s why we work all year, to get to this point. As we’ve said in the past, the real season begins.”
The Hawks were less than a minute from breaking the franchise record for road wins, leading 2-1 on Artemi Panarin’s third-period goal. But Dustin Brown scored off an Anze Kopitar touch pass off the rush with 55 seconds left to tie it, and Drew Doughty scored 27 seconds into overtime to end it.
Nobody wants to go into the playoffs with four straight losses, but the Hawks liked most of what they did in Anaheim on Thursday and in Los Angeles on Saturday.
“Our last two games, we did some decent things,” Joel Quenneville said. “Would’ve been nice to win today, but we put ourselves in the position we wanted at the start of the season. That was our motivation. It’s good to be first in the division and we got the conference.”
Toews staked the Hawks to a 1-0 lead at 6:25 of the first period with his 21st goal. After a sleepy second period, the Kings tied it on a Tyler Toffoli power-play goal at 4:52 of the third. Panarin then cashed in on a Patrick Kane feed at 13:53 to give the Hawks a 2-1 lead — and likely secure a $1.725-million bonus for himself for finishing in the top 10 in points among NHL forwards (he’s tied for ninth, with 10 games on the schedule Sunday).
And you wouldn’t have known the game was meaningless by the way Panarin celebrated it. Quenneville kept Panarin and Kane in the lineup for these last three games — along with Richard Panik, they’re the only Hawks to play all 82 games — as he pursued the bonus, which is well-earned, but could wreak havoc on next year’s salary cap.
“I think it might turn out OK,” Quenneville said with a smirk, clearly happy for Panarin.
After weeks of essentially playing out the string, and thinking about individual achievements, the Hawks are eager to turn the page on a wildly — and surprisingly — successful regular season.
“Finished first in the West, we have home ice, can’t ask for much more than that,” goaltender Corey Crawford said. “It was a great, great season by us. We’ve just got to build off that.”
Said Toews: “We want to see what we’re made of. And I think we’re all pretty confident in what we’re able to do.”