But the NHL's decision in May to create a 24-team return-to-play format amid the pandemic -- with the top 12 teams in each conference taking the ice -- allowed the Blackhawks another opportunity to potentially earn their way to the playoffs. And that's what the 12th-seeded Blackhawks did in upsetting the fifth-seeded Oilers in four games in their best-of-five qualifying-round series, putting them back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
The Blackhawks and Vegas Golden Knights will begin a best-of-seven series Tuesday in the Western Conference quarterfinals, which will be played in the Edmonton hub city bubble. Puck drop for Game 1 will be Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. CT from Rogers Place.
"Here we are," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "It's definitely a different time, but we're happy to have this opportunity."
The Blackhawks pushed past the Oilers with key late goals in Game 3 and Game 4. Despite the Blackhawks having nine fewer points than the Oilers in the pandemic-shortened regular season, they earned the spot into the main bracket.
Now Chicago's challenge figures to get tougher. Vegas earned its place as the top seed in the Western Conference bracket with three victories in round-robin play after posting the third-best record in the conference in the regular season.
"We are going to have to be better," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "It's like that every time you move on in the playoffs."
Among the challenges for the Blackhawks will be facing Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner, whom Chicago traded to Vegas in late February. At the time, the trade seemed to be an acknowledgement from the Blackhawks that they wouldn't make the playoffs.
Instead, the Blackhawks will have to get past Lehner if they hope to advance. The Golden Knights have also received a boost with the return of leading scorer Max Pacioretty, who didn't play in the round-robin games due to an undisclosed issue that kept him from traveling to Edmonton with the team.
The Blackhawks recognize the task ahead. Given the unique opportunity, they're embracing it.
"We're all going to have to find another level," Toews said. "But we're excited for that challenge."