With the cheers of 18,099 fans in the United Center sending them off, the Hawks left the ice happily aware that they'd clinched fifth place in the Western Conference fight to the finish line and would be traveling to St. Louis to try to get even with the team that evicted them from fourth place Saturday.
"We won the [regular-season] series against them [3-1-1]," said Hawks coach Brian Sutter, who spent his entire playing career and began his coaching career with the Blues. "That tells you we played pretty well against them. We had a winning record against five of the teams from our conference that made the playoffs and we played two of them, Phoenix and Los Angeles, dead even.
"Ninety-six points is a 25-point increase over last year. That's a steep, steep increase, one heck of a statement for a hockey team to make. Our guys can be darn proud of themselves. We cut 39 goals-against off our total. Our power play (third worst in the league last season) stayed pretty consistent and has been near the top of the league (fifth). Our penalty killing got better and better.
"We're happy as heck the playoffs are starting. I relish this. It's winning the battles and doing the little things, the way we did in this game."
Sunday's conquest of the two-year-old expansion team with the worst record in the Western Conference didn't come easily.
Thibault, who finished with 28 saves, had to make a goal-line stand to keep the Blue Jackets from scoring the game's first goal when they swarmed him with just under seven minutes left in the first period.
Columbus' goalie, Marc Denis, also was outstanding and the Hawks were unable to get the puck past him until they got lucky with 5 minutes 39 seconds to play in the second period. A shanked shot by Eric Daze from the right circle inadvertently found the lower right corner of the net for his 38th goal.
"Sometimes goalies guess," said Daze, smiling at his unwitting stroke of good fortune. "I think he was guessing high left."
Early in the third period, Thibault rejected a close-in attempt by Rostislav Klesla to prevent the Jackets from tying the score.
A few minutes later, Alex Zhamnov penetrated on the right side and sent a pass to Tony Amonte, who infiltrated to the near left and scored his 27th goal.
The Hawks controlled play thereafter and Thibault coasted to his sixth shutout of the season and 27th of his NHL career that began on Oct. 10, 1993, when he broke in with Quebec.
Goalie-go-round: Sutter's decision to start Thibault was somewhat surprising. Although he had been a reliable workhorse during the first four months of the season, his play fell off and he was 4-10-2 in his previous 16 decisions. Meanwhile, after being seldom used during the first four months, backup Steve Passmore turned into the Hawks' stopper coinciding with Thibault's slump and has compiled a 6-3-2 record since Feb. 9.
"The last two months have been a little tough for me," said Thibault. "But Steve was playing more and he was playing real well. That allowed me to get some rest. Brian also has been very careful with my practice time the last couple monthseven when I wasn't playing. Last year at the end of the season I was completely worn out. Now I feel as good physically as I did at training camp."
Numerically speaking: Only one team in the NHL improved more than the Hawks this seasonthe New York Islanders, who were 44 points better than last year. While the Hawks had a 28-7-5-1 home record, their road record of 13-20-8-0 earned them only 34 points, three fewer than last season when their bottom line was 15-19-4-3.
Playoffs: Tickets for Sunday's and Tuesday's home games are available at the United Center box office, Gate 4, Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. They may also be purchased through Ticketmaster at 312-559-1212.