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Blackhawks’ issues more glaring than in recent years

The Blackhawks have lost three straight games to fellow Western Conference contenders. (AP Photo)

This is usually when it’s time to try to calm everyone down, to talk Blackhawks fans off the ledge. After a string of bad games and half-hearted efforts in March, it’s time to point out the Hawks don’t sweat the regular season, that they’re on cruise control. That they’re still deeper than every other contender out there. That their experience and playoff mettle will separate them from the pack when the games matter most, as it almost always does.

Its been written before. In each of the last three years, in fact.

And it’s still all true. If you’re rending garments and wailing at the moon over a few losses in mid-March, then you haven’t been paying attention during the last few seasons. The Hawks are a team built for April through June, not October through March. This is the fourth straight season they’ve stumbled in March. The past three ended in a Stanley Cup, a Western Conference final Game 7 overtime, and another Stanley Cup. So Marian Hossa was right to chuckle when he was asked if the Hawks are panicking.

But…

It feels just a little different this year. The flaws are a little more glaring, the potential pitfalls a little more obvious. Can the Hawks win the Stanley Cup yet again this spring? Of course, they can. Only a fool would count them out. But the road to a championship might be tougher than ever this year. And the car the Hawks are driving is a souped-up sports car with its muffler dragging on the asphalt, sparks flying.

While the Hawks roster is still star-laden and as explosive as any in the league, the underlying numbers are underwhelming. The Hawks are just 14th in the league in Corsi (a stat that measures shot attempts for vs. shot attempts against as a proxy for puck possession) at even strength this season, at just 50.7 percent. They were second in the league each of the last two seasons, and first in the 2013 campaign. The last four Cup winners all were first or second in the league.

Unlike the more well-rounded teams of recent vintage, this is a team that has built its impressive record on its stellar power play and the brilliant play of goaltender Corey Crawford. Its even-strength numbers are middling. It’s been a one-line team for much of the year (and Joel Quenneville broke up that line on Tuesday, putting Patrick Kane alongside Tomas Fleischmann and Jonathan Toews to try to shake up an offense that has scored 10 goals in its last five games). The defense has been unreliable, with two rookies, a 37-year-old veteran and a Kings castoff fighting for the bottom three spots.

They’re just 11-10-2 against the Central Division, which is better than ever (don’t look now, but Nashville is climbing the standings and is just five points back of the Hawks) and which will provide their first two opponents in the playoffs. And they’re just 17-14-4 on the road, and currently wouldn’t have home-ice advantage in at least the first round. They’ve been shut out seven times, and have been blown out by three or more goals 11 times.

Each of these is a minor concern. Taken collectively, though, and it becomes clear how important these final few weeks of the regular season are. The Hawks have to find the right line combinations. The right defensive pairings. And the right mindset. Remember, 10 players who participated in Tuesday’s practice at the United Center weren’t on the team last year. They don’t necessarily have that experience, that innate sense of poise the Hawks have become known for.

“We have the character in this room that’s not going to allow this to continue,” Andrew Desjardins said. “Each individual has to go look at himself in the mirror and just find a little bit of anger, a little bit of battle. A little bit of everything.”

Anger has never been the Hawks’ strong suit. Their supreme self-confidence is one of their great strengths, but it also tends to diminish their urgency, especially in the — yawn — regular season. But while we all very well might look back at this column and have a good laugh in mid-June when the Hawks are cementing their place in NHL history with yet another Stanley Cup, it won’t happen unless the Hawks do a little soul-searching, and a lot of work.

“You want to turn this around as soon as possible, but I don’t think it’s panic or anything like that,” Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “We know what we’re capable of, and we need to get back to playing that way.”

And soon.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus