| Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy seeks to end his playoff drought.
Veteran defenseman hoping 7th season is playoff charm
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.”