CHICAGO — Peaking at the right time is as much of a hockey cliche as taking it one game at a time. Every player on every team wants to hit his stride for the playoffs, like the Los Angeles Kings did a year ago on the way to winning the Stanley Cup as a No. 8 seed.
The Chicago Blackhawks may have peaked in late January, the entire month of February or early March when they went the first 24 games of the season without a regulation or overtime loss. They made history, but the Presidents’ Trophy winners don’t want this to be just the year of the streak.
“You don’t want to have your season and success be focused on that streak because streaks are always nice,” rookie forward Brandon Saad said, “but you’re not going to be remembered unless you’re winning the ultimate prize in the end.”
For the first 24 games, the Blackhawks went 21-0-3, and all three of those losses came in a shootout. In finishing 36-7-5, they showed that the longest point streak to open a season wasn’t an aberration.
“We weren’t really playing for the streak, to be honest with you,” winger Patrick Sharp said. “We were playing to get better and to see what kind of team we had. The fact that we have it means a lot to us.”
History is stacked against Chicago. No team with the most points in the NHL has captured the Cup since the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, and no team has won it twice since the 2004-05 lockout.
But the Blackhawks' players consider the experience of the streak and of winning the championship three years ago beneficial, not detrimental as they begin the playoffs Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild.
“I think toward the end of that streak, every game started to feel like a playoff game,” Sharp said. “I’m not sure if we raised our level or if other teams were trying to break the streak or whatever the reason was. … We look back at those 24 games, a lot of them were one-goal games and we found ourselves on the right side of it. That’s really important down the stretch, and especially in the playoffs.”
The players didn’t want to talk about the streak as it was ongoing, part of the superstitious nature of sports. Sharp said reflection of that accomplishment will have to wait until the playoffs are over, but it’s still a source of pride.
“The streak is fun,” forward Viktor Stalberg said. “It’s something that I think it’s going to stay for a long time. I think it’s a hard one to beat.”
Chicago’s streak ended before it could challenge the 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers’ mark of 35 games without a loss (25 wins, 10 ties), which occurred before overtime was introduced to regular-season games in 1983. That Flyers team went to the Stanley Cup Final but lost to the New York Islanders.
The 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens held the previous record of 28 games without a loss (22 wins, 6 ties), and they went 12-3 in the playoffs on the way to a third straight championship.
With nine players left from the Blackhawks' 2010 Cup team, the ‘77-78 Canadiens’ pattern is one they’d like to follow.
“A bunch of us in here were fortunate enough to be on that team a couple years ago that won,” Sharp said. “The older you get, the less important these regular-season numbers mean to you. It’s all about playoff success and winning championships.”
Of course, the Blackhawks couldn’t win a championship in the winter. But there are things they can draw from an impressive streak in the playoffs.
“How good it felt to work hard and win as many games as we did or get points in as many games as we did,” goaltender Corey Crawford said. “I think definitely we can look back on that if there was a time when things get tough and aren’t going our way.”
To pick up points in that many games, the bounces had to go the Blackhawks’ way often. They went 13-0-3 in one-goal games.
“In playoffs, it’s usually going to be one-goal games, and I think we have that confidence this year more than we had in the past to win those tight games and not be afraid of making a mistake and kind of going for it instead,” Stalberg said.
But that’s not even giving the Blackhawks enough credit. They outscored opponents 75-43 before a March 8 loss to the Colorado Avalanche and fired up a city that experienced a hockey renaissance a few years earlier.
“It’s nice to see friends do well. It’s nicer that they’re in the other conference doing well,” said Washington Capitals right wing Troy Brouwer, who played three full seasons in Chicago and won the Cup in 2010. “I know it’s good for the city. I was treated well by the city, by the fans, so for them to be able to have something to cheer about, I enjoy that.”
Chairman Rocky Wirtz deserves credit for putting games back on television, Brouwer said, and the Cup went a long way to reminding Chicago fans why they loved the Blackhawks, who hadn’t won it all since 1961.
Now it’s common for more than 22,000 fans to pack United Center, also known as the “Madhouse on Madison.”
“I guess I’ve been here for all the good stuff,” Stalberg said. “It’s been great. It’s a full house every night, the fans are always excited. … It’s always going to be a sellout crowd, and they’re crazy about it.”
Hardly ever losing helps build up that kind of love between a city and a team. Inside a locker room full of veterans and players who have won such as captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, streaks like what the Blackhawks put together breed confidence.
“You see you’re capable of winning and winning all the time,” Saad said. “It’s obviously nice for your confidence to think back of when you had success, and how we can have success as a team.”
There is a danger in reflecting too much on 24 games without a regulation loss, especially now when the Blackhawks are considered favorites to come out of the Western Conference.
“I think you look around our locker room now, whether it’s a first-year guy or a 17-year veteran, everyone’s focused on playing our best hockey come playoff time,” Sharp said.