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Blackhawks’ loss to Avalanche creating more drama in Central

Updated: March 4, 2014 11:34PM

Two days after Christmas, Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy stood outside the visitors’ dressing room at the United Center and ceded the Central Division to the Blackhawks, saying, “We know that Chicago is going to be on top. We don’t think we’re going to battle with Chicago in the standings.”

On Tuesday morning, Roy stood in the same spot, pleasantly surprised to be taking it back.

“Well, it’s a big surprise to me,” Roy said of the Avs’ recent surge. “I guess we didn’t expect to be where we are today. If someone would say to me in September that we’d be three points behind the Hawks going into the last 21 games, I’d say, ‘Where do I sign?’”

After Tuesday night’s 4-2 victory over the Hawks, Colorado is now just one point back with a game in hand. Tyson Barrie’s power-play goal with 7:10 to go in the game sealed it, shortly after Jonathan Toews’ power-play goal had tied it. Semyon Varlamov made 36 saves in the win.

The St. Louis Blues are in first place, two points up on the Hawks with two games in hand. Perhaps most alarming, the Hawks now have lost six of seven games against their two primary division rivals, including three of four to Colorado.

“We lost a lot of ground tonight,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Four-point swing.”

Added Ben Smith: “Those are points that we want. They’re right there in the race with us. We’re neck-and-neck with both those teams now. They’re big points.”

That the Hawks are fighting tooth and nail with the Blues for Central supremacy isn’t a surprise. That it’s suddenly a three-way race is. Unlike last season, when the Hawks coasted to the Presidents’ Trophy after their record 21-0-3 start, the final five weeks of the regular season are going to be decidedly more intense this time around.

In fact, Quenneville pegged the Blues — who just added star goaltender Ryan Miller and agitating center Steve Ott — as the favorite to come out with the division title.

“We want to position ourselves, we want to finish as strong as we can,” he said. “We’d love to be able to say we can win our division, but that’s going to be a challenge with St. Louis and [their] games in hand and where they’re at. And our division’s going to be competitive with Colorado.”

Toews wasn’t so quick to cede the division, but was more focused on making sure the Hawks are simply playing at their best by the time the playoffs start in mid-April.

“Once the playoffs start, whatever happened during the regular season is pretty much forgotten,” he said.

Perhaps, but seeding definitely matters. Whoever wins the Central will get to avoid the other two division heavyweights in the first round (the current matchup would be the Minnesota Wild), and will have home-ice advantage for the second-round (with a monster Hawks-Blues showdown the most tantalizing scenario).

And given their performance against the Blues and Avs, every potential advantage is critical.

“Everybody’s got incentive to get into a playoff spot,” Quenneville said. “There are going to be some very important games for our opponents, as well as ourselves. Should set up for a very meaningful stretch run.”

While utter domination is ideal, there is a positive side to the uncertainty. Last spring, the Hawks had a little trouble flipping the switch once the playoffs started, admitting that it took a few games of the Wild series for their intensity level to rise to the occasion. With a five-week, three-team sprint to the finish, they’ll already be in that playoff mind-set — no matter where they end up.

“I think going into the playoffs competitively and knowing you’re not already in there in first place by a mile, it can help, for sure,” Brandon Saad said. “We’ll be getting a taste of those games, and getting gritty early on.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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