March 14-- Mar. 14--The math says the Blackhawks' playoff hopes are still alive.
The reality is this is the Blackhawks' playoffs.
Think of it as what the NCAA would call play-in games.
As they chase an improbable but hardly impossible wild-card berth, needing to overcome not just a four-point deficit but leapfrog three other hopefuls with a dozen regular-season games to go, every game has a must-win vibe.
Frankly, that's a privilege at this stage of a season that began as poorly as the Hawks' did, what with a 9-18-5 record in mid-December.
If they do get into the real postseason, consider it a bonus.
Their by-the-fingernails 5-4 victory Wednesday in Toronto, their fourth in a row and 15th in their last 21 games, lifted them to 31-30-9 with 71 points.
Just for perspective, that's only marginally better than the Blackhawks were at this stage last season at 30-32-8 with 68 points -- and no one was excited about anything.
The difference then was they were 11 points from the closest wild-card slot, which might as well have been a million.
They weren't going anywhere, and there's nothing drearier than playing out the string with nothing at stake in a league that sends more than half its teams to the postseason.
So this is a gift.
Blackhawks fans should savor it.
The Blackhawks should too.
Not that the Hawks always know what to do with gifts these days.
The Maple Leafs came out flat for a second successive game and fronted the Blackhawks a five-goal lead, thanks in large part to a four-goal first period off goalie Frederik Andersen, whose night ended then and there.
Did the Blackhawks show their appreciation by putting the Leafs out of their misery?
They did not.
Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, whose return from his latest concussion has fueled some of their recent optimism, did what he could. He held the Leafs scoreless till late in the second period despite feeling ill.
Collin Delia took over in net as Crawford didn't feel up to returning for the third period. Unfortunately the Maple Leafs did, and soon it was the whole Blackhawks team that looked unwell.
Delia was pelted with 29 shots on goal, one short of a Leafs single-period record, stopping 26. Twenty-nine shots on goal. Garret Sparks, who replaced Andersen for the Maple Leafs, had to face only 25 over two periods.
When, late in the game and down by two, the Leafs pulled Sparks for an extra attacker, the Blackhawks' weakness playing short-handed once again exacted a toll.
John Tavares scored a power-play-goal with 1:31 to play, the Maple Leafs' third goal of the period, and it appeared Toronto might get a gift of its own -- a penalty shot with 19 seconds to play-- as it appeared Delia knocked his own net off its moorings.
Certainly that's how the Toronto fans saw it, but Delia contended it already was loose when he bumped it and the officials deemed it unintentional.
The Blackhawks withstood the final barrage and escaped with the unnecessarily thrilling victory.
"They're hungry, they're fighting for a playoff spot," the Leafs' Auston Matthews told reporters. "It's the end of the season, pretty much playoff hockey now."
For the Maple Leafs, that's a metaphor.
For the Blackhawks, that's reality.
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