The final score and statistics suggest Wednesday night's 2-1 Blackhawks loss to the Buffalo Sabres was a close, tight affair that the Hawks easily could have won.
Statistics, however, sometimes lie. While the Hawks were certainly one shot away from at least claiming a point, and while they outshot the high-powered Sabres for the game, it was only close because Hawks goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin kept it that way.
In a game that very easily could have been 5-0 or 6-0 after two periods, Khabibulin kept the impotent Hawks in it.
The loss was the fourth in the row for the Hawks and sixth in seven games. With St. Louis' victory in New Jersey, the Hawks are only two points out of last place in the Western Conference with back-to-back games Saturday at Detroit and Sunday against Minnesota.
For the game, the Hawks outshot the Sabres 35-29. But while the Hawks may have had the quantity, the Sabres had the quality with most of their 29 coming while camped out in the Hawks' crease.
"They shoot a lot of low shots with guys going to the net," Khabibulin said of the Sabres. "They score a lot of their goals that way."
Most of the Hawks' 35 shots came from a safe distance and hit Sabres goalie Ryan Miller square in the logo with little traffic to disturb him.
"We need more traffic in front of the goalie," coach Denis Savard said. "When a team doesn't score, that's the problem. You have to play in the tough areas."
There was also a difference in the pedigree of shooters. For Buffalo, the shots came from their snipers. Jason Pomonville (19 goals) and Daniel Briere (16) had five shots each, while Maxim Afinogenov (20) added four.
The two Hawks leaders in shots were Adam Burish and Dustin Byfuglienrecent call-ups from Norfolk with a total of three career goalseach had four shots.
The leading goal scorers in the lineup Wednesday for the HawksJeff Hamilton (11), Tuomo Ruutu (10) and Martin Lapointe (10)had a total of three shots in the game and only one in the third period.
"We had a lot of perimeter shots," Khabibulin said. "We definitely need to go to the net harder."
Buffalo took a 2-0 lead on goals from Jochen Hecht in the first period and Afinogenov in the third.
That looked to be more than enough until Denis Arkhipov's shot with 50 seconds left hit the goal post, bounced back and hit Miller before going into the net.
Savard acknowledged Wednesday he had been riding Khabibulin "pretty hard" since becoming coach and perhaps the goalie was feeling a bit of fatigue. Khabibulin has started 21 of the 22 games since Savard took over. The only one in which he didn't play, Dec. 9 at Minnesota, he was sick. In his last three games at the United Center, his goals-against average was an unsightly 6.67. Savard said he doesn't intend to change his plans and will give Khabibulin off days only from practice
Martin Havlat skated for about 45 minutes Wednesday morning and said he felt better, but did not want to commit himself to a return date from his groin injury. Havlat said his skating Wednesday consisted of "just coasting" without any sudden change of direction or stops and starts. He's hoping to add those Thursday when he plans on practicing with the rest of the team.
Savard said he's still hopeful Havlat will be ready Saturday when the Hawks are in Detroit. Savard also said he wouldn't have any problem playing Havlat on Saturday in Detroit and again Sunday at home against Minnesota, which appears to be a risky bet for someone coming off a groin injury.
"[Havlat] always has been a top-conditioned athlete," Savard said. "We'll watch his minutes." Savard said the same after Havlat came back from his ankle sprain and played Havlat 22 minutes in each of back-to-back games and 24 in the third game in four nights.
Patrick Lalime's conditioning assignment in Norfolk will end Jan. 24. The Hawks then will have to recall the goaltender or place him on waivers to keep him in Norfolk. Karl Stewart, who has been out since Dec. 22 with a sprained knee, may return this weekend.