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New playoff format, new challenges for Blackhawks

Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) blocks shot by St. Louis Blues' Jaden Schwartz (9) during first period an NHL

Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) blocks a shot by St. Louis Blues' Jaden Schwartz (9) during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Chicago, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: November 26, 2013 12:21AM

EDMONTON, Alberta — Like most hockey fans, it’s taking Jonathan Toews some time to get used to the NHL’s new divisional playoff format. Heck, just last week in Toronto, the league’s general managers sought clarification on just how the revamped-yet-retro system is going to work.

“I keep looking at the conference standings,” Toews said. “Just old habits, I guess. I’ve got to pay a little more attention to what’s going on in each division.”

When he does, he’s going to notice something — the Central Division is absolutely stacked. Entering Monday night’s action, the Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues, the Colorado Avalanche and the Minnesota Wild had each played at least 22 games. None had lost more than five games in regulation, and all four have a better record than any team in the Eastern Conference (in fact, seven Western teams have better records than the current No. 1 in the East, the Boston Bruins). Even Dallas and Nashville are above. 500, and last-place Winnipeg is 10-11-4, which would make them solid playoff contenders in the East.

On Saturday night, the Hawks, fighting for first place, won. But so did the Blues. And the Wild. And the Avalanche. It’s the Central standard, time and again.

“Pretty amazing, pretty crazy,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “You don’t get any room, you don’t get any comfort. … What number is it going to take to make the playoffs? It’s going to take a lot of points to get in. What’s it going to take to win your division? That could be a freaky number. I don’t think anybody expected it to be this strong this early.”

Monday night’s game in Edmonton was the Hawks’ 25th of the season, and by the time they return from the circus trip next week, the campaign will be more than a third over. So we’re past the point of fluky starts. It’s fair to say that the division — particularly the top half — is at the very least, very good. And with the top three teams in each division, plus two wild cards per conference, making the playoffs under the new format, there might not be any dog days this spring — only a dog fight.

It’s nothing like last season, when the Hawks ran away and hid with not only the division title, but the conference championship and the Presidents’ Trophy after their record-setting 21-0-3 start. They cruised through the last month or so of the season, and actually had a little trouble flipping the switch come playoff time. At this rate, the Hawks could have another tremendous regular-season record and still be fighting for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs — the Central Division semifinals, essentially — until the very end.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“You always want to go into the playoffs playing strong and playing your best hockey,” Patrick Kane said. “I think last year we were playing our best hockey at the beginning of the year and then we came into the playoffs and we didn’t start off the way we wanted to against Minnesota or Detroit. … It’s important going into the playoffs to be playing your best hockey so you’re ready for that playoff-type mentality.”

The Hawks aren’t sweating the standings just yet. After all, it’s still November. But they do check the scores, they do watch the highlights, and they’ve seen first-hand just how strong the Blues, the Avalanche and the Wild are. And they’re quickly learning that maybe unlike last year’s regular-season romp, every point this season is going to count.

“We want to put ourselves in a position where we feel pretty comfortable,” Brandon Saad said. “You don’t want to be chasing a playoff spot, because it’s a tough league, let alone our division. It’s not going to be like it was last year.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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