Short on tal­ent but long on guts

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BY BEN POPE, STAFF RE­PORTER bpope@sun­times.com | @BenPopeCST

This Black­hawks team is clearly flawed, clearly over­matched and clearly still hang­ing on for dear life against the top-seeded Golden Knights.

But the Hawks’ Game 4 win, keep­ing their sea­son alive at least un­til Tues­day, didn’t feel like a sur­prise.

It’s what the Hawks did all reg­u­lar sea­son long, even if that was nearly half a cal­en­dar year ago now.

They were never tal­ented or struc­tured enough to make a truly ex­tended run into the nor­mal eight-team play­off field, but they stuck around on the fringe of the bub­ble for an im­pres­sively long time. Ev­ery dis­cour­ag­ing los­ing streak was matched with an up­lift­ing turn­around; ev­ery em­bar­rass­ing loss can­celed out by a spir­ited, if not ex­actly beau­ti­ful, win.

The Hawks, on the ice, have made it clear over 78 games — 70 reg­u­lar sea­son, now eight post­sea­son — that they’re a sub­par team in terms of skill and com­po­si­tion. They’ve also made it clear they’re an elite team in terms of char­ac­ter, de­ter­mi­na­tion and lead­er­ship.

Sun­day’s gutsy Game 4 vic­tory was just the lat­est of many, many ex­am­ples.

Af­ter los­ing 11 of their first 16 games last fall, the Hawks ripped off a four-game win­ning streak in mid-Novem­ber — in­clud­ing three wins over even­tual play­off teams, in­clud­ing these Knights — to some­what right the ship.

Af­ter three blowout losses to the Avalanche in less than a month, the Hawks in­cred­i­bly ral­lied from a 3-1 sec­ond-in­ter­mis­sion deficit on the road in the fourth meet­ing Dec. 21 to win 5-3.

Af­ter suf­fer­ing a hu­mil­i­at­ing 7-1 loss to the Devils en­ter­ing the Christ­mas break, then learn­ing dur­ing the break that Brent Seabrook and Calvin de Haan were out for the sea­son, the Hawks im­me­di­ately routed the then-surg­ing Is­lan­ders to start the sec­ond half.

Af­ter con­ced­ing a goal to goal­tender Pekka Rinne, of all peo­ple, in a 5-2 home loss to the Preda­tors on Jan. 9, the Hawks ripped off five straight wins, in­clud­ing a sweep of their Ot­tawa-Mon­treal-Toronto swing.

Af­ter a dis­as­trous start to their cru­cial late-Fe­bru­ary West­ern Canada road trip, the Hawks set a sea­son scor­ing high in an 8-4 de­mo­li­tion of the Flames.

Af­ter see­ing Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafs­son shipped out at the trade dead­line, in­di­cat­ing general man­ager Stan Bow­man had punted on the Hawks’ play­off hopes, the team ral­lied from down 2-0 to win in Tampa, start­ing a four-game win­ning streak that re­stored a sliver of hope.

And while the chaos and con­fu­sion of the start of the coron­avirus pan­demic swirled around them March 11 — still the last ma­jor-league, fan-at­tended sport­ing event in Chicago — the Hawks put to­gether one of their most com­plete ef­forts of the year in a 6-2 rout of the Sharks.

The Hawks, at a medi­ocre 32-30-8 when the sea­son stopped, prob­a­bly didn’t de­serve to be in the play­offs based on merit. But based on spirit, they prob­a­bly did de­serve it.

Few teams fought harder, against a more up­hill road, for a longer time than the Hawks did all sea­son.

They’re do­ing so again this week against the Knights, hop­ing to win four in a row against the con­fer­ence’s top seed to mirac­u­lously ad­vance. A global pan­demic-in­duced for­mat change won’t bail them out this time. In fact, they’re al­most cer­tainly still doomed.

But the scrappy ef­fort in the face of that doom nonethe­less reem­pha­sizes the most ad­mirable and lik­able as­pect of this Hawks team: their re­silience.

GETTY IMAGES

Drake Cag­giula is wrapped up by the Golden Knights’ Chan­dler Stephen­son in the sec­ond pe­riod of the Hawks’ Game 4 vic­tory.

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