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CALGARY, Alberta — Seth Jones didn’t remember exactly how many shots on goal the Blackhawks recorded in their 5-2 loss Tuesday against the Canucks — the correct answer was 14 — but he knew it “wasn’t pretty.”
Nothing about the Hawks’ performance was. They took too many penalties, conceded too many breakaways, made several poorly timed line changes, lost plenty of defensive-zone puck battles, looked slow on their skates and mishandled the puck almost every time they did gain possession.
They far more closely resembled the version of themselves that lost 21 of 23 games earlier this season rather than the version that won six of seven earlier this month.
“Not our best game,” coach Luke Richardson said.
Combined with their similarly lackluster effort in Sunday’s loss to the Kings, it’s safe to assume that out-of-the-blue winning surge has ended. That chapter of the book can be sent off for printing.
So, in retrospect, how much damage did it do to Hawks management’s tanking plan? Not much, actually.
The Hawks now sit at 14-28-4, good for 32 points in 46 games — a .348 points percentage. They entered Wednesday ranked 30th in the NHL, just ahead of the Blue Jackets (31 points in 47 games, .330 points percentage) and Ducks (33 points in 48 games, .344 points percentage) and just behind the Coyotes (35 points in 48 games, .365 points percentage) and Sharks (38 points in 49 games, .388 points percentage).
Indeed, the race for last place has functionally narrowed to a five-team race. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the next tier of bad teams — composed of the Canucks, Senators, Canadiens and Flyers — crashing dramatically enough to enter the conversation.
The Hawks occupied last for a while, then rose as high as 29th a few days ago. But they could easily slide back into last by Sunday, when they’ll begin their bye week and All-Star break. They have two games left — Thursday against the Flames and Saturday against the Oilers — before then.
The Hawks have been aided by the Jackets earning points in three of their last six games (entering Wednesday) and the Ducks winning two of their last three, which prevented a gap from forming between 31st and 30th.
There’s also so much season left to be played. Of the Hawks’ 36 remaining games, 21 are scheduled for after the March 3 trade deadline, by which point their roster will probably be even worse. Six of those 36 games are against the Coyotes, Ducks or Sharks, matchups that could prove important in a twisted way.
All this hand-wringing over small movements at the bottom of the standings can get overblown. Nonetheless, in a year with exactly four elite prospects in the draft class, the difference between finishing last (which offers a 25.5% chance of picking first overall and a guaranteed top-three pick) and finishing third-to-last (which offers an 11.5% chance of picking first and a 28.8% chance of falling to fifth) is significant.
General manager Kyle Davidson, who made a rare appearance at a Hawks road game Tuesday — along with a who’s-who crowd of other NHL GMs — before taking in the NHL/CHL Top Prospects Game on Wednesday in the Vancouver suburbs, likely has many of those numbers committed to memory.
Richardson and the Hawks’ players, however, almost certainly do not. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman received blowback for claiming “nobody tanks” during a Tuesday news conference in Montreal, but he was correct when saying that “players and coaches do their best to win.”
That’s how Richardson can keep making tweaks to the Hawks’ systems, Jones can keep trying to shoot more and Andreas Athanasiou can keep improving his defense without internal conflict.
This was always destined to be a season of dichotomous objectives within the Hawks organization, and that is precisely what will play out over the next few months.