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Slow starts leading to some tough finishes for Blackhawks

WASHINGTON — Two days of hype, an hour of jittery ramp-up, a pomp-and-circumstance-filled entrance and a military flyover. Yet it seemed the Blackhawks were caught off-guard by the start of Thursday’s Winter Classic, falling behind 2-0 in the first 12 minutes.

“Seems like we weren’t ready to play,” Brandon Saad said.

It’s a familiar refrain for the Hawks, whose slow starts lately have made for some difficult finishes. In their last four games, they’ve given up nine first-period goals, falling behind 3-0 to Winnipeg, 2-1 to Colorado, 2-0 to Nashville and 2-0 to Washington. That’s an average of 2.25 first-period goals per game. Through their first 34 games, they allowed just 21 such goals, an average of 0.62 per game.

They came back to beat Colorado. Came back to beat Nashville. Came back to forge a tie with Washington. But the middling 2-2-0 record in those games is a testament to the lousy starts.

“It’s kind of been our theme here over the last three or four games,” Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “We’ve got to find a way to come out stronger. Same thing in Colorado, and a couple games at home. We’ve been slow in the first period, and we can’t keep going like that. We’ve got to have a better first period. We know we’re usually pretty good in the second and third, but from now on we’ve got to be better in the first.”

While Thursday’s game fit the recent pattern, the Hawks didn’t want to lump it in with the others. The quirky nature of the outdoor game, including a harsh sun glare in the first period, made it difficult on both sides.

“Kind of a different setting, different game,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “We did have a flip-flop of ends, too [at the 10-minute mark], which made it a little different than normal. I still think we’re ready to play, and we usually play the right way. … It’s a trend. Before, we were having trouble scoring in the second period, and now we’re giving them up in the first. I think that, over time, I don’t think too much has changed in how we approach it or how we’re playing.”

During their eight-game win streak, which began on the circus trip in late November, the Hawks were racing out to early leads and then putting their foot on opponents’ throats. In those eight games, they outscored their opponents 11-2 in the first period, and only trailed after one once, in New Jersey. In the last four games, they’ve been outscored 9-3.

The early deficit forces the Hawks to press a little offensively, which gets them out of their defensive system. It hasn’t burned them too badly, but it’s certainly made life more difficult.

“Getting down a goal or two never helps — or three the other night against Nashville,” Ben Smith said. “When we were really streaking there, we were getting leads, going up 1-0 or 2-0 in the first period, and it’s a lot easier to play when you have that lead. It’s something we need to work on, improve, and try to find ways to start faster and play with leads.”

While he acknowledged the stumbling starts, Jonathan Toews chose to focus on the positive aspect of the negative starts — that the Hawks’ character has been tested.

“I don’t know if I’d throw that in with any sort of trend that’s been going, with the way we’ve been playing recently.” Toews said of the Winter Classic. “Sometimes it happens. The good news is, we’re able to reverse that momentum a little bit and battle our way back, especially against defensive teams like Nashville and Washington. They play smart in their own zone and don’t give up much. You never want to put yourself in that situation, but if you do, we have confidence we can come out of it.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus