A mixture of disappointment and optimism permeated the Blackhawks locker room Friday.
A day after being eliminated from the postseason, the Hawks couldn't hide their dissatisfaction at missing the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 seasons, but the dread of entering another off-season with a dim future has been lifted.
"It's disappointing that it's over," said rookie Jonathan Toews, who scored the first goal Friday night in the Hawks' 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators. "The good thing about hockey is … you have next year. I think it starts right now, our preparation for that. We're going to be motivated enough to not let this happen again. You want to focus on the positive [and] the bottom line is we have a locker room full of winners here. We're going to be motivated as far as improving for next year."
Coach Denis Savard said watching the Predators defeat the Blues on Thursday night to close out the Hawks' chances made Friday's contest against Nashville "a tough game," and left his team in a bit of funk during the morning skate.
"I saw a lot of disappointed faces out there," Savard said. "We want to be a playoff team, a Stanley Cup champion. We took some huge steps."
The Hawks still had some work to do Friday night as they try to improve further on last season's 71 points.
With their victory over the Predators before a throng of 21,929 at the United Center—the largest of 12 sellout crowds this season—in their final home game, the Hawks upped their point total to 88 with just Sunday's game against the Red Wings in Detroit remaining. While that game will be played simply for pride, the significance of how close the Hawks came to reaching their first postseason since 2002 isn't lost on the organization.
"When you know there's really no chance of making the playoffs and it's only the end of January or early February it's pretty tough going the last couple of months of the season," defenseman Duncan Keith said. "So it was nice to play some meaningful games and realize we had a legitimate chance of making the playoffs. It was a big step we took as a team and an organization. We have to keep taking those steps."
After Nashville's Rich Peverley opened the scoring, the Hawks scored three goals to close out the first period.
Toews notched his NHL rookie-leading 24th goal with a shot from between the circles that beat Nashville goalie Chris Mason to tie it. Patrick Kane increased his lead in the rookie scoring race to two over Washington's Nicklas Backstrom with an assist for his 70th point.
Adam Burish's short-handed goal made it 2-1 just more than three minutes later. Burish skated down the left side and put a shot on goal that eluded Mason for the Hawks' 17th short-handed goal of the year.
Kane scored his 20th of the season after knocking in a pass from Patrick Sharp past Mason to finish the first-period scoring.
Patrick Lalime held strong the rest of the way in goal for the Hawks.
The victory, their fourth straight and fifth in their last six games, improved their home record to 24-19-6 and left more reason for optimism.
"Last year we knew we were close but we didn't know how close we were," defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "This year, with the young group of guys we have, we're all very happy with the direction the team is going."