Pull out any excuse you want -- the Chicago Blackhawks were playing their seventh game in 11 nights; it's mid-March and they're bored; the lowly Avs were in town -- but coach Joel Quenneville's squad looked absolutely awful for well over two periods Sunday night at the United Center.
Then lightning struck.
Not once. Not twice. Three times in the span of 34 amazing seconds.
Jonathan Toews, Richard Panik and Artemi Panarin turned a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 Blackhawks lead with goals at 10:17, 10:34 and 10:51 of the third period, and the Hawks claimed a 6-3 victory to avert an embarrassing loss to the worst team in the league.
The 3-goal outburst was the third fastest in franchise history. "It was a tremendous comeback," Quenneville said.
The Hawks won for the 17th time in 20 games, clinched a playoff berth for the ninth straight season and increased their lead in the Central Division to 7 points over the reeling Minnesota Wild, which lost at Winnipeg.
Scott Darling started in net and claimed his 18th victory despite a rough go of it early on.
"I wasn't too happy with my first (period), but my mindset was just keep us in it, keep us in it and we'll still have a chance to win," Darling said.
The insanity began when a Duncan Keith flip shot from the point bounced off John Hayden -- and then Toews -- to cut Colorado's lead to 3-2. The Hawks survived a challenge in which Colorado claimed Toews didn't touch up and was offsides before Panik brought the puck over the blue line.
Quenneville was adamant that the refs got the call right.
Seventeen seconds later -- a time frame Hawks fans know pretty darn well -- Panik tied the score when he pounced on a loose puck and whacked a shot past goalie Jeremy Smith.
Seventeen seconds later -- that's no typo, folks -- Artemi Panarin made it 4-3 when his shot hit Smith, bounced off his backside and trickled into the net.
Before you could snap your fingers three times, the United Center went from morgue to absolute bedlam.
Toews made it 5-3 at 13:19, and Marcus Kruger added an empty-net goal with two seconds remaining.
Afterward, Darling was asked if he'd ever been the victim of so many goals over such a short period of time.
"I'm sure I have, plenty of times. It's not a good feeling," said Darling, who had some empathy for a goalie playing in just his seventh NHL game. "You're facing some of the most elite players in the world and they're coming at you wave after wave. It can't be fun. So he held his team in for a long time, but there's only so much a goalie can do."
Toews and Darling wouldn't say the Hawks overlooked the Avs and pointed more to the heavy schedule as to the reason for such lackluster play early on. Jordin Tootoo, who saw just 4:48 of ice time, was one of the veterans who spoke up during the second intermission.
"We just needed one goal to wake us up, give us some energy, get the crowd into it," said Toews, who has 20 goals. "I think (Tootoo's) always vocal, but tonight he said the right things, and I think we all kind of collectively made that decision that we had to play better."