By Jay Cohen
AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO — Just two short weeks ago, the Chicago Blackhawks were closing out another successful regular season. The top seed in the Western Conference was wrapped up, and Jonathan Toews and company were a common pick for another run to the Stanley Cup.
Chicago was swept right out of the playoffs by the Nashville Predators, who skated circles around the Blackhawks for most of the first round. The Blackhawks looked tired while managing just three goals in four lackluster games, with two of them coming on the power play.
“When you don’t compete to the level that’s necessary, I take that personally, and as a coach, we didn’t find the ‘all-out’ button and get the job done,” coach Joel Quenneville said after Thursday night’s 4-1 loss in Game 4 in Nashville.
Chicago also was eliminated in the first round last year, bowing out in seven games against the St. Louis Blues. Back to back early playoff exits for the team that won Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015 send general manager Stan Bowman into the offseason with some difficult questions.
The Blackhawks continue to play right at the top of the salary cap, making any sort of major move a tricky proposition. But it looks as if age might be catching up to some of the team’s most important pieces, and several of its best young players flopped in the postseason this year.
“It’s tough enough to lose a series and fall short. It’s a whole different story to lose four straight and get swept like we did,” Toews said. “I think we’ve got guys in this room that have experienced the highs of going all the way, and aside from what it would feel like to miss the playoffs, especially with the potential in this room, this has to be the next-worst feeling for sure.”
Toews, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 2010, has just one goal in his last 13 postseason games. Key rookies Ryan Hartman, who had 19 goals and 12 assists in the regular season, and Nick Schmaltz were kept off the scoresheet altogether against the Predators. Same for veteran center Artem Anisimov, who didn’t look quite right after returning from a left leg injury in time for the playoff opener.
Almost everyone on the Blackhawks seemed to have trouble with Nashville’s athletic top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg. Duncan Keith, the Conn Smythe winner in 2015, finished with a minus-6 rating, and fellow defenseman Brent Seabrook also struggled at times.
“We didn’t play the game that’s supposed to be played in the playoffs,” winger Artemi Panarin said through an interpreter.
While the salary cap likely will be a major factor, Bowman has some intriguing options when it comes to addressing areas of concern.
With veterans Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya likely headed for free agency, the Blackhawks could take a closer look at young defensemen Michal Kempny, Gustav Forsling and Ville Pokka. Alex DeBrincat, a touted forward prospect who had a huge year in the Ontario Hockey League, also might get a chance next season.
The upcoming expansion draft also could affect Bowman’s plans. Center Marcus Kruger, a key penalty killer and one of the Blackhawks’ best players against the Predators, and young defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk could be tempting possibilities for Las Vegas.
In the meantime, the Blackhawks are left to lament what happened in the franchise’s shortest stay in the playoffs since Quenneville took over in 2008. It was the first time a No. 1 seed was swept in the first round since the NHL adopted its current playoff format in 1994.
“I think every game they seemed to get better and just thrived off what happened the last game and every single time we could not start the game the right way,” Toews said. “We would get behind, start forcing offense and it seemed like every defensive breakdown or turnover we would have, they would come back our way. … It was just an uphill battle — every which way.”