| Black­hawks de­fense­man Con­nor Murphy seeks to end his play­off drought.

Vet­eran de­fense­man hop­ing 7th sea­son is play­off charm

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO SPORTS - BY JIMMY GREEN­FIELD

GLEN­DALE, Ariz. – If the Black­hawks fail to make the play­offs for a third straight sea­son, it would hit ev­ery player hard.

But as much as Pa­trick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Dun­can Keith, Bran­don Saad and Corey Craw­ford will feel the pain of miss­ing out on the plea­sure and pain of the post­sea­son, they still have the mem­ory of 540 com­bined play­off games to com­fort them dur­ing the long sum­mer break.

Con­nor Murphy, Alex DeBrin­cat and Dylan Strome won’t have that lux­ury. None of them has played in an NHL post­sea­son game, and they know the next few weeks — be­gin­ning with Satur­day’s game against the Coy­otes — will go a long way to­ward de­ter­min­ing if they’ll need to wait another year be­fore ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the Stan­ley Cup play­offs.

“It sucks not mak­ing the play­offs,” DeBrin­cat said. “So this Fe­bru­ary stretch, and ob­vi­ously March, too, are big games, and we need to come to play each and ev­ery night. It’s crunch time. We can’t give up any points any­more. We can’t re­ally af­ford one off night. We can eas­ily be in that play­off po­si­tion, and these next three games are go­ing to be big for us.”

DeBrin­cat is only in his third NHL sea­son and at 22 has a long ca­reer ahead — bar­ring in­jury. Keith didn’t reach the play­offs un­til his fourth sea­son, then it be­came a rou­tine part of his spring, at least un­til re­cently.

But for Murphy, it’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. At 26, the de­fense­man cer­tainly isn’t old, but if he plays in all of the Hawks’ re­main­ing games this sea­son, he will have 451 NHL games and seven sea­sons un­der his belt with­out reach­ing the play­offs.

He spent his first four sea­sons with the Coy­otes be­fore join­ing the Hawks for the 2017-18 sea­son, which co­in­ci­den­tally was the first time they missed the play­offs in 10 years.

“I think maybe af­ter the sea­son it weighs on you more,” Murphy said. “But when you’re in it, you just worry about your rou­tines and your process ev­ery day. You learn to con­trol what you can con­trol so at the end of the day win­ning or los­ing is out of your con­trol. What’s in con­trol is what you do ev­ery shift when you’re on the ice, and if ev­ery­one’s do­ing that, you in­crease your chances of win­ning. …

“Those big­ger team re­sults are out of each guys in­di­vid­ual con­trol, but if we can all play to our best ca­pa­bil­ity, we know we’ll be able to do it.”

For Murphy to make the play­offs for the first time, the Hawks can’t af­ford to give away any games.

The Coy­otes dom­i­nated the Hawks at Gila River Arena in re­cent years, win­ning the last three meet­ings by a com­bined 12-3. But the Hawks won 3-2 in a shootout Satur­day would drop the Hawks six points be­hind the Coy­otes, who hold the fi­nal West­ern Conference wild-card spot.

“It means a lot,” Murphy said. “But I think what I’ve learned is that you prepare the same way for Game 1 or Game 5 as you do for Game 60 through 80. So I don’t think there re­ally is such a thing as ‘turn­ing it on now.’ You have to play at your best level at all times. … You have to rise to the oc­ca­sion ev­ery game. …

“It def­i­nitely is that ex­tra hunger to want to get there and re­al­iz­ing this is the time we have to gear up.”

Jeremy Col­li­ton never reached the NHL post­sea­son as a player but ap­peared in only 57 games over parts of five sea­sons be­fore his ca­reer was cut short be­cause of a se­ries of con­cus­sions. By the time he was 26 — Murphy’s cur­rent age — Col­li­ton was out of the league.

So while it seems as if Murphy has time on his side, it’s im­pos­si­ble to know when it can all come to an end with dreams un­ful­filled.

“Dis­ap­pointed that I wasn’t able to ex­tend a ca­reer and break through and be an ev­ery­day player,” Col­li­ton said. “Play­offs are part of that. But I don’t think about that now in a sit­u­a­tion we’re in. As a team, we want to get in and we want to play im­por­tant games.

“A game like this (against the Coy­otes) it’s fun. You’re ex­cited when you come to the rink and you’re not wor­ried about the team be­ing up for it be­cause there’s a lot on the line and we want to earn the right to play in more of these and ul­ti­mately get in the play­offs. That’s what we’re play­ing for.”

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