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Blackhawks sneak into NHL playoffs

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CHICAGO – It looked like they had blown it. All the Chicago Blackhawks needed to do Sunday was earn one point against the Detroit Red Wings – one point, and they would have clinched a playoff spot and a chance to defend their Stanley Cup championship.

But they lost by one goal, 4-3, and all coach Joel Quenneville could do afterward was crack a joke.

“I should call the Rangers,” Quenneville quipped. “Certainly, it’s not where we want to be. We’ve got to be them today, unfortunately. It’s a rotten spot, with your fingers crossed, rooting for your season.”

Little did he know the Blackhawks would be just like the New York Rangers, backing into the playoffs on the final day of their season, watching another team determine their fate.

The Carolina Hurricanes had a chance to clinch a playoff spot Saturday night. But they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-2. And so the Rangers squeaked into eighth in the Eastern Conference.

When the Blackhawks lost to the Wings, that gave the Dallas Stars a chance to clinch a playoff spot Sunday night. No way they wouldn’t take advantage of it, right?

“Dallas should win that game,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “And yet in saying that, if Minny can hang in there and get good goaltending … You never know.”

No. Not in this league, you don’t. The Stars lost to the Minnesota Wild, 5-3. And so the Blackhawks squeaked into the eighth spot in the Western Conference.

Three times in two days, an NHL team had a playoff spot in its hands and fumbled it. In that sense, it was rotten. It would have been more thrilling if the Hurricanes had served up a victory for the Caniacs tailgating in the parking lot of RBC Center, if the Blackhawks had cued up another rousing rendition of “Chelsea Dagger” at United Center, if the Stars had gotten to the promised land in their ancestral home of Minnesota.

But it was a fitting end to an insane NHL season. The last team standing last year became the last team to make the playoffs this year, and it didn’t happen until the last game on the schedule.

And it sets up a potentially crazy playoffs, starting with the Blackhawks facing the Vancouver Canucks, who are under immense pressure to bring home their first Stanley Cup in 40 seasons – and whose reward for winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team will be to face the defending champions, the team that knocked them out of the playoffs each of the past two years.

“We’re back,” said Blackhawks goaltender Marty Turco(notes), a former Star, who went home to watch on television as his old team helped out his new team with a loss. “I don’t know if there’s such a thing as CBC 1, 2 and 3, but if there was, we would be on all three of them. It’s going to be unreal.”

All season, all around the league, the refrain has been the same: “Just get in.” Last season, the Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs by beating the Rangers in a shootout in their regular-season finale, and they came within two games of winning the Cup. In the Eastern Conference final, those seventh-seeded Flyers beat the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. Just get in. Anyone can win.

We’ll see how the parity plays out this time in the playoffs, but six years since the NHL instituted the salary cap and started awarding points for overtime losses, the league is so tight that all 16 teams have a legitimate shot to go deep, if not win the Cup.

There’s one big difference between the NHL’s parity and the NFL’s parity, long considered the standard in sports. The top teams don’t get a break at the beginning of the postseason.

“You want a first-round bye,” Babcock said. “You don’t want to play anybody. They’re all too good. They don’t give you a bye, though. That’s the problem.”

In the East, only four points separated the top five teams – the Washington Capitals, Flyers, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and Lightning. The bottom three teams all have outstanding goaltenders who can steal a series – the Canadiens with Carey Price(notes), the Buffalo Sabres with Ryan Miller(notes), the Rangers with Henrik Lundqvist(notes).

In the West, the Canucks ran away with the conference, finishing 12 points better than anyone else. But in the first round, they drew the ’Hawks, who not only have that history against them, but finished only eight points behind the second-seeded San Jose Sharks. The bottom five teams in the West were within two points.

“You look at the playoffs this year, it seems like anyone can win any game and any team could beat any team,” Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane(notes) said in the dressing room after the loss to the Wings. “It seems like we didn’t do a good enough job to get ourselves able to clinch. But we’ve still got a chance. It would be nice if we could get some help here tonight. I feel confident about where our game’s at and try to look forward going into the playoffs.”

It’s not like the Blackhawks were a bad team this season, even though they lost 10 members of their championship roster in the 2010 offseason because of a salary-cap purge. They finished with a plus-33 goal differential, seventh-best in the NHL. The Anaheim Ducks were plus-4, and they have home-ice advantage for the first round as the fourth seed in the West.

Entering Sunday, the ’Hawks could have finished as high as fifth in the conference – fifth. They still have a core of top-end players – Kane, Jonathan Toews(notes), Patrick Sharp(notes) and Marian Hossa(notes) up front; Duncan Keith(notes), Brent Seabrook(notes), Brian Campbell(notes) and Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes) on defense.

Their depth is an issue, especially for a long playoff run. But their main problems this season were focus and execution, playing poorly at home and late in games, failing to get up for lesser opponents. They lost to the Edmonton Oilers, the worst team in the league, twice at home as they stumbled to an 11-11-2 start.

“People have no idea how hard it is to win the Cup and bounce back and be good in today’s world,” said Babcock, whose Wings came within a game of repeating in 2008-09. “This ain’t 20 years ago, because every team’s gunning for you, and the league is this close.”

Babcock pinched his fingers in front of his face.

“There’s no way to get your guys engaged early,” Babcock said. “How do you get a team to play in September or October where the games – in your mind as a player, no matter what you say to yourself – don’t mean anything compared to what you just played in June? That’s the facts. I mean, that’s a good hockey team, a real good hockey team. But they only let you in the tournament in the end if you get enough points.”

In the end, the ’Hawks did have enough points, whether they backed in or not. The last team in is the defending champion? Should be a heck of a tournament.

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