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In tight division race, Hawks need ‘desperation’ focus every game

CHICAGO IL - MARCH 06:  Jonathan Toews #19 Chicago Blackhawks celebrates his second period goal with Andrew Shaw #65

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 06: Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates his second period goal with Andrew Shaw #65 and Duncan Keith #2 against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the United Center on March 6, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Blue Jackets 6-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 181114293

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Updated: March 8, 2014 11:40AM



Jonathan Toews has a laser-like focus on the moment. But with the Blackhawks trying to catch the St.  Louis Blues and hold off the Colorado Avalanche in the Central Division of the Western Conference, he’s also keeping an eye on the standings.

‘‘Of course,’’ Toews said after the Hawks’ 6-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night at the United Center. ‘‘That’s why the game against Colorado [a 4-2 loss at the UC on Tuesday] was so disappointing. Not only did we not play the way we wanted to, but we didn’t play with the right desperation considering we’re up against the team we’re competing with in the standings.

‘‘We’ve got them next week [Wednesday in Denver]. We’ll be ready to have a much better effort than we did [Tuesday].’’

Playing with the right desperation is a Blackhawks artform — their recovery from a 3-1 series deficit against the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals and their two goals in 17 seconds of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final being the latest examples.

The Hawks do not appear to have lost that touch. Even as they have struggled to maintain the performance level of their red-hot start to this season, they have played their best in the marquee games. They beat the conference-leading Anaheim Ducks 4-2 at the United Center. Two days later, they beat the Boston Bruins 3-2 in a nationally televised rematch of the Stanley Cup Final. And they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 in a nationally televised Stadium Series game at Soldier Field last Saturday.

The loss in a four-point game against the Avalanche was a rare stumble. Perhaps it hasn’t quite hit the Hawks that the new playoff format could pit them against the Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs — without home-ice advantage if the Avs pass them in the standings. With their captain already holding next week’s game in his sights, the Hawks’ ‘‘compete level’’ figures to be at a playoff level. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond.

After the loss to the Avalanche, the Hawks responded with a dominant performance against the Blue Jackets, scoring five goals in the first two periods.

‘‘There’s something to take from that when you have an off game and you bounce back — that definitely shows character,’’ Toews said. ‘‘But for us, it shows more character when we’re playing well and still looking for ways to improve, and we know we’re not even close to that ceiling. That shows more about our will to win and our desire to improve as a team and be the best. When we play well, we keep building on it. That’s what we’re looking to do after a game like [Thursday night].’’

Coach Joel Quenneville downplayed the notion that his team has a smaller margin for error this season. But the fact of the matter is the Hawks have virtually zero margin for error with 18 games left in the regular season.

The Hawks (37-13-14; 88 points) trail the Blues (90 points) in the Central Division and the Ducks (92) in the conference. They are only one point ahead of the Avalanche (87) in the division. In the new postseason setup, the second-place team in each division faces the third-place team in the first round of the playoffs.

So the challenge for the Hawks is not just rising to the occasion but playing well night-in and night-out — not their specialty of late.

‘‘We want to be consistent in the way we approach any game,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘It’s going to be a big two points for everybody we play down the stretch. It’s up to us to be consistent and get the contribution we had across the board [against the Blue Jackets] — and keep playing the same way.’’

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkPotash



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