The Blackhawks’ last remaining playoff hopes, existing only in implausible scenarios entering the day, died quietly Tuesday.
A 7-4 loss at the hands of the Lightning, tying a neat bow on yet another eight-game season series in which the Hawks won just once — identically to their Predators series — snuffed out the last flame.
Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton had subtly admitted earlier Tuesday that he knew the playoffs had become unrealistic. But he nonetheless hoped his team could stay alive a bit longer to test the team’s many young players in pressure situations.
“Our hope coming in…is that we could be competitive and play meaningful games for as long as possible and of course do it with a lineup full of young guys, which we’ve delivered there,” Colliton said.
“The longer we can stay in the race, the better for everyone. It’s a lot easier to prepare for these types of games, especially with no fans, if the games mean something in the standings. That’s something we want to get a win tonight to extend it just a little more, understanding the situation we’re in.”
Colliton unfortunately won’t get his wish. The Hawks are still mathematically alive, but no sane human can look at either the standings — where the Hawks still trail the Predators and Stars by big margins — or the Hawks’ 9-15-0 record since March 6 and see any possible route.
Colliton also called on the Hawks to “go down fighting” and they did do that to an extent Tuesday, cutting a 6-2 deficit to 6-4 to make the game semi-interesting late.
It obviously wasn’t enough, though. The Hawks began Tuesday with a 0.8% playoff chance, per MoneyPuck; after the loss, it might take a microscope to read their updated odds.
Much of the night was spent down to four defensemen. Adam Boqvist left during the second period with a serious-looking right wrist injury after being spun into the ice by an Erik Cernak hit and didn’t return.
Connor Murphy, meanwhile, missed 17 minutes due to penalties for fighting Cernak, who’d waited impatiently for the duel since tempers first flared between the two teams in early March.
Goalie Kevin Lankinen was pulled for the second time in four games after allowing eight goals on 11 first-period shots. Ridden harder than the Red Line over the season’s second half, Lankinen has finally faltered lately, posting an .866 save percentage over his last nine appearances.
On the forward end, Mike Hardman made his NHL debut and Dylan Strome reentered the lineup after two eye-opening games as a healthy scratch, but it didn’t particularly matter. Nothing does anymore this season, at least when it comes to wins and losses.
The Hawks still have some things they can use their seven now-meaningless remaining games to learn. Do Strome, Nikita Zadorov, Adam Gaudette and others fit moving forward — and if so, where? How many minutes of experience can they give their plentiful first- and second-year players? Will Collin Delia ever start in goal again?
But the most significant question — “Can they make the playoffs?” — was answered for good Tuesday.