CHICAGO — There's not going to be any Stanley Cup celebration in the Windy City and, for the second straight spring, it's looking like there won't be any playoff games at all.
The Chicago Blackhawks have been one of the NHL's most up-and-down teams all season but it looked like they had things solved last month when they roared back from last place in the Western Conference into a tie for the final wild-card slot.
It only took five games for it all to unravel. The Blackhawks entered Thursday's game against the Buffalo Sabres just 1-4 in that stretch — and had plummeted to nine points out of the postseason.
"I think that kind of speaks to how close it is," said Hawks star and South Buffalo native Patrick Kane. "Obviously some teams that we were right there with us went on winning streaks so that didn't help us much. You can look at it that by losing a couple games you get yourself out of it pretty quick. But also if we win a few games and go on a run like we did earlier, we'll see what position we'll be in. We might be right there again."
The Hawks were just 9-18-5 in mid-January and 3-12-2 under new coach Jeremy Colliton, but then they got hot. They won three games in a row at one point and seven in a row at another. When Kane scored the overtime winner Feb. 20 in Detroit, Chicago had gone 10-2 in a 12-game stretch and was 26-26-9.
But things started to turn with home losses to Colorado and Dallas. On their recent West Coast trip, Chicago pulled out a 4-3 win at Anaheim but suffered a disappointing 6-3 loss in Los Angeles and then fell at San Jose, 5-2.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has gone 5-2-3 in its last 10 games to roar nine points ahead of the Hawks. After making the playoffs every year from 2009-2017 and winning Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015, this is an odd feeling.
"It's easy to do the math and not get a good feeling when you look at the standings," said captain Jonathan Toews. "But we could have said that a long time ago this season. .. The mistakes we're making are easy to correct. In San Jose we had a more sustained effort but gave up some chances. ... We know we're still playing with a lot of purpose (and) if we have a good week coming up, things can flip the other way."
Kane's 24-game point streak ended against Dallas and he only had one point, a goal, on the road trip. At 22 1/2 minutes per game, he's third in the NHL in ice time among forwards and there's chatter here both Kane and Toews are getting fatigued as Colliton rode them hard to get back in the race.
"I feel good. I was playing good there for a while," Kane said. "Didn't have a great road trip obviously but I still feel confident about my game. I'm not feeling tired or anything. When they tell me I go out there, I will."
"We all realize these are our playoffs right now," Toews said. "We have some guys in this room aside from myself that are getting a lot of ice time and a lot of pressure and have seen some tough, heavy games and never really make excuses. I don't think fatigue should be an excuse."
Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt played his first game at the United Center Thursday. It was a return to the arena where he was taken by the Sabres with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 Draft.
Mittelstadt laughed when asked if he had flashbacks to the draft.
"Obviously it's quite a bit different with the ice in and not the whole stage up," he said. "But it's fun to be back here and kind of re-live it, remember how good a feeling it was and see how far you've come since then."
Mittelstadt was drafted after his senior year of high school in Eden Prairie, Minn., and after playing for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. He was on the NHL's Top Prospects tour that spring, attending a Stanley Cup final game in Nashville and throwing out a first pitch in Wrigley Field during draft week.
"It should be good. We're excited. It's a great place to play," Mittelstadt said of United Center. "They get pretty rowdy here and have great fans so it should be a good atmosphere and should be fun."
Mittelstadt scored his 10th goal of the season and had a career-high five shots on goal in Monday's 4-3 loss to Edmonton. The Sabres have also been pleased with his ability to mix his defense and offense.
"That's something I've been learning lately," he said. "Early in the year, I was focused so much on defending, defending, defending. Now I'm to the point where you can get the balance going and now your spots when you can go play offense. It's been a work in progress, especially lately. I've had the puck more and made a few more plays so it's been good."
The Sabres scratched Matt Hunwick and Johan Larsson as Zach Bogosian and Vladimir Sobotka returned from injury. ... Thursday's game was the second of four straight against Western Conference opponents, a run that continues Saturday in Denver. ... Forward Remi Elie was suspended one game at Rochester for a check to the head in a game against Syracuse on Sunday.