WASHINGTON – While his teammates battled the Capitals down on the ice, Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith was perched in the relatively safe environs of the Verizon Center press box Friday night.
It was a healthy Keith who wore a suit instead of a uniform as the Hawks played the first of back-to-back games to conclude the regular season. Having been locked into third place in the Central Division already, the Hawks began the balancing act of trying to maintain momentum versus resting some of their top players in advance of the postseason.
“Certain players on the team that have been around long enough deserve that right to have a rest,” winger Brandon Bollig said. “Guys need their rest, especially going into a big grind like the playoffs.”
With their top defenseman among those scratched, the Capitals – a team with nothing to play for but pride after falling short in a bid for a berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs – skated circles around the Hawks during a 4-0 victory that snapped the defending Stanley Cup champions’ four-game winning streak.
“We are in the Hawks jersey,” winger Patrick Sharp said. “It doesn’t matter who is playing and not playing, you want to work your hardest and play your best, and [Friday night] we clearly didn’t do that.”
Jay Beagle scored twice, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom each added a goal and an assist and goaltender Jaroslav Halak made 34 saves to blank the punchless Hawks and record his fifth shutout of the season.
Corey Crawford was under fire from opening puck drop and Antti Raanta replaced him in the Hawks net to start the third period.
“It just felt like everything they did worked, and everything we did didn’t work – that pretty much sums it up,” Crawford said. “Just forget about that game and
prepare ourselves for what we have to do in the playoffs.”
The loss, which dropped the Hawks to 46-20-15 on the season, had very little meaning in the grand scheme of things, as the only thing remaining to be decided is their first-round opponent. The Blues and Avalanche are locked in a battle for the top spot in the Central, and the team that comes up short will have home-ice advantage over the Hawks when the playoffs begin April 16 or 17.
“Once … it’s the drop of the puck in the first game, everything else is out the window,” Hawks defenseman Johnny Oduya said. “It’s a whole new season, a new start for everybody. You want to have good momentum going in but that can change … in the first couple of minutes in the first game.”
In addition to Friday’s game, the contest against the Predators on Saturday also will afford coach Joel Quenneville the opportunity to continue to evaluate lineup options for the playoffs. Several regulars are expected to sit out the finale.
“Everything’s under consideration,” Quenneville said. “We have a pretty good idea how we’re looking to begin in a perfect world, but we’ll see how that plays out. We’ll definitely be watching and evaluating.”