Blackhawks hit the road with first place on their minds

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Troy Brouwer celebrates after scoring the go-ahead goal against the Blackhawks in the third period of Game 7 on April 25, 2016. (AP Photo)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Would it all have gone down differently last April had Game 7 between the Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues been held at the United Center instead of the Scottrade Center?

Would coach Joel Quenneville have been able to make a difference had he had the last change instead of Ken Hitchcock? Would Brent Seabrook’s third-period shot have received a friendly hometown bounce instead of clanging off both posts and skittering away?

We’ll never know. But that Game 7 served as a reminder that — while the Hawks have proved time and again that playoff seeding isn’t everything — it sure doesn’t hurt to have home-ice advantage in the postseason. And with 31 games left in the season, and with the Minnesota Wild up four points with three games in hand on the second-place Hawks, it’s getting close to that time of year when you always need to keep one eye on the schedule and one on the standings.

“Yeah, I think you start to,” Seabrook said Monday afternoon after the Hawks shook off any rust from the three-day All-Star break with a brief practice at SAP Center. “It’s just a natural progression when the season starts to wind down and playoff races are heating up, and everyone’s talking about it. But it’s the same message we’ve had all year. I might sound like a broken record every time I talk to you, but we’re focused on us. We can look at the standings all we want, but we’ve got to play well and try to get as many points as we can.”

That starts with the game Tuesday against the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks, which kicks off a six-game trip leading into the team’s six-day “bye week.” In fact, eight of the Hawks’ next nine games are on the road, including two trips to St. Paul to face the Wild. And until those two games, and until the Wild catch up in games played, it’ll be tough to get a real handle on the division race.

Quenneville is paying attention, though. He always keeps tabs on the standings, and two third-period collapses in the last two games made his team’s late-season climb that much steeper.

“You’re aware of everything going on in the league and with your own game,” he said. “You value two points. We put ourselves in a good spot early; now we’ve lost some ground against Minnesota. We want to get back, try to recapture where we were most of the year.”

The good news for the Hawks is they have a sizable lead on the Nashville Predators (nine points back but surging) and the Blues (12 points back). The question isn’t whether they’ll make the playoffs, it’s whether they can win the division.

And while the Hawks have won Game 7s at home (2013 against the Detroit Red Wings) and on the road (2015 against the Anaheim Ducks) and have lost Game 7s at home (2014 against the Los Angeles Kings) and on the road (2011 against the Vancouver Canucks), last season’s Game 7 loss in St. Louis sharpened their focus on winning the Central Division.

“Our main focus is trying to win our division and having home ice through the first and second round,” Seabrook said. “That’s a huge thing in our game. But it’s also about playing the best hockey when the playoffs start.”

NOTES: Gustav Forsling, recalled Sunday from Rockford, likely will play against the Sharks. Michal Rozsival, who was hurt blocking a shot in practice Thursday, will be out 2-3 weeks. Artem Anisimov and Marcus Kruger were sick Monday and missed practice. Their status for Tuesday’s game is uncertain.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.


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