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Blackhawks will have to put in work to win surging Central Division

Jiri Tlusty Jonathan Toews

Jiri Tlusty, Jonathan Toews

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Thursday

Blues at
BLACKHAWKS
The facts: 7 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.

Think back for a moment to last season and try to pinpoint one big regular-season game — one with real significance, real weight, real stakes. You probably can’t.

Oh, there was excitement and suspense as the Hawks’ record point streak reached into the teens and beyond. There were end-to-end thrills and Patrick Kane heroics in that unforgettable shootout victory in Detroit. There was satisfaction and relief when they clinched the Presidents’ Trophy in Edmonton. But the Hawks were simply so good for so long that their position in the standings was never really in doubt.

That won’t be the case this season.

The combination of the new divisional playoff format, the steady surge of the St. Louis Blues and the stunning 6-0-0 start of the precocious Colorado Avalanche should ratchet up the intensity and the significance of each game, particularly those within the division. That includes Thursday’s rematch with the Blues, whose last-minute goal last week handed the Hawks their only regulation loss.

In fact, until they snagged a shootout win at Carolina on Tuesday night, the Hawks were 3-1-1 — and outside of the playoff picture. It’s comically early, of course. But it’s becoming clear the road to the playoffs will be rougher this season.

“You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t focus more on what you’re doing, but it’s tough to not see how those teams are doing,” winger Brandon Bollig said. “There’s definitely going to be some heavy competition in this division, and it’s going to come down to the wire, so all these points, such as [Tuesday] are pretty important.”

With that in mind, there are two ways to look at the Hawks’ perplexing inability to put teams away early. They’ve been outscored 6-0 in the third period over the last five games, blowing 2-0 leads to the Lightning and the Hurricanes. Excluding an empty-net goal in the waning seconds of the opener, all six games have been cuticle-crushing one-goal contests.

So on one hand, the Hawks are showing a lack of a killer instinct. On the other hand, they’re 4-1-1 and are managing to come out on the right side of these tight games. It’s nothing new. The Hawks were 19-3-5 in one-goal games last year, five more wins than any other team.

Captain Jonathan Toews took the optimistic approach to both the harrowing style of victory and their frustrating inability to score more than two goals in four of their last five games (scoring three against the Islanders) despite generating plenty of chances.

“That’s a good thing,” Toews said. “You’re playing well, doing things right and you’re getting those chances. That’s the way it goes sometimes. … We’re not going to get frustrated. We’ll keep working. We’ll start getting the bounces pretty soon.”

Coach Joel Quenneville
said he’d like to see his team take better advantage of trailing opponents’ desperation late in games, and exploit their gambles for insurance goals. Bryan Bickell wants to see the Hawks play the same style in the third period as they do in the first. And Toews said the Hawks need to stop dropping their speed and intensity “a tiny bit” after jumping out to early leads — to keep the hammer down.

“It’s nice to take the suspense out of there once in a while,” Toews said.

No doubt. Because even for the league’s top tight-game team, more suspense in games inevitably will mean more squandered points, and eventually a whole lot more suspense in the standings in the suddenly formidable Central Division.

“Interesting start to our season,” Quenneville said, while rattling off how well the Avalanche, Blues, Wild and Predators have looked in the early going. “Seems like the intensity this year is at a different level than we’ve seen in the past.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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