The Chicago Blackhawks have taken a hard fall in recent weeks. Since returning from the Olympic break, they have recorded a 7-8-1 mark headed into their Thursday night home game against the Minnesota Wild.
Last year's stellar championship run now seems almost like ancient history.
Neither player is going to play in the remaining regular-season games, although head coach Joel Quenneville says that both will be back by the start of the postseason in two weeks.
Other injuries to defenseman Michal Rozsival (missed eight games) and left wing Bryan Bickell (six games) have left the team further depleted.
The Blackhawks are safely in the playoffs, but no longer among the regular-season elite. They will either finish second or third in the Central Division, and that means a playoff date with the Colorado Avalanche is on the horizon. If they can survive that, they will likely get the St. Louis Blues.
Chicago would need to be at its best to take out the Blues, and close to that level to beat the Avs.
Quenneville knows the only thing that matters is the playoffs and regular-season victories mean little at this point. That's why Toews and Kane will not be rushed back into the lineup.
However, all the Blackhawks' difficulties cannot be blamed on injuries. There has been a notable lack of production—Chicago has managed four goals in the last three games and been shut out twice in the last five games—which could be attributed to a lack of focus and attention to detail.
So, while the big picture is all about the playoffs, the team must regain its scoring and swagger.
It would be best if there were some tangible results in the season's final games. Believing that this talented team can simply turn it around in the playoffs could be a recipe for an early exit, which would be thoroughly disappointing for the players, coaching staff, management and the team's loyal fans.
Quenneville may have recently passed the 700-victory mark in his coaching career, but he will not take this lightly. Prior to the team's pregame skate on Thursday morning, Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the coach made the following line changes:
#Blackhawks lines: Sharp-Shaw-Hossa, Saad-Nordstrom-Versteeg, Bickell-Regin-Morin, Bollig-Kruger-Smith. Teravainen out of the mix.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) April 3, 2014
The Blackhawks had issues up the middle prior to Toews' injury, but placing Andrew Shaw on the first line and Joakim Nordstrom on the second line illuminates how significant those problems are.
Shaw is a hard-working hustler who leaves it all on the ice every night, but he lacks the all-around skills to be a top-six forward. Shaw has scored 19 goals and 17 assists in 74 games this season, and those totals exceed what the team expected from him this year.
Nordstrom has played much of the season with the Blackhawks' top farm team in Rockford. He has scored one goal and one assist in 10 games at the NHL level, and it's difficult to believe he will become a significant contributor at this point in the season.
Peter Regin is a New York Islanders castoff, while Marcus Kruger is a defensive specialist who does his best work as a penalty-killer.
The Blackhawks recently brought 19-year-old Teuvo Teravainen aboard. However, Quenneville's decision to leave him out of the lineup likely means that he doesn't seen the 2012 first-round draft pick as an immediate solution to the Blackhawks' offensive difficulties.
Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad are quality offensive players on the top two lines, but the once-formidable Blackhawks are scrambling to score at this point.
If Sharp, Hossa and Saad don't carry the Blackhawks in that area, more struggles are likely.
However, Quenneville can ask more from his defense. Duncan Keith has been one of the game's best offensive defensemen all season and Brent Seabrook has the kind of shot from the point that can cause problems for any goaltender. Quenneville can ask Keith and Seabrook to put even greater emphasis on their offensive game.
He can also ask for more from Kris Versteeg, whom the Blackhawks reacquired earlier in the year. Versteeg has 12 goals and 22 assists, but he has had an accurate and nasty shot in the past, and he should be able to increase his point totals.
By asking for more from his top defensive pair and a talented veteran like Versteeg, he could get some of the production that has been missing in recent weeks.
Without changes, it's unlikely that lineup will turn things around in the final stretch of the regular season. Once the Blackhawks play Game No. 82 at Nashville, the real season will begin.
If Toews and Kane aren't in peak form at that time, the postseason may be a lot shorter than any Blackhawks fan expects.