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Artemi Panarin (center) celebrates his goal with Tanner Kero (left) and Patrick Kane in the first period Wednesday night in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo)

Blackhawks shake mini-slump by throttling defending champs

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SHARE Blackhawks shake mini-slump by throttling defending champs

PITTSBURGH — Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews knows how the Pittsburgh Penguins feel right now.

Their bodies ache and their minds are drained. The regular season has felt like an eternity, and the potential two-month climb back to the top looks daunting.

Toews’ Hawks have tried to repeat as Stanley Cup champions three times now. They made it to overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference final, and they lost twice in the first round.

There’s a reason no team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. It doesn’t help that the Penguins have been decimated by injuries, with standouts such as Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Olli Maatta on the shelf. But that’s all part of it.

‘‘The amount of games, the short offseason — those are the things that typically kick in [this time of year],’’ Toews said. ‘‘[But] there’s a lot of guys in that room [who are] comparable to this locker room, [who] have that experience of knowing what it takes to get back to the playoffs and knowing that’s when the real season begins. That’s when everyone really brings everything they’ve got.’’

The Hawks have been coasting themselves a bit lately, with the top seed in the Western Conference well in hand. But after a dreadful two games in Florida, they snapped back to attention Wednesday, scoring four first-period goals in a 5-1 rout of the slumping Penguins, who lost their fourth consecutive game.

It was also coach Joel Quenneville’s 850th career victory and the Hawks’ 24th on the road this season, matching a franchise record. But with five games left in the regular season, the results aren’t really what matter most. It’s the way the Hawks are playing. And for the first time in a handful of games, they looked like themselves again.

‘‘That’s the kind of game we’ve been hoping for the past few weeks,’’ winger Patrick Kane said.

The two losses in Florida were marked by sloppy puck control. The Hawks had no such issues against the Penguins, as all four first-period goals were set up by beautiful passes.

First, Kane set up a goal by Artemi Panarin with a no-look, backhanded leave behind the net. Nick Schmaltz found Richard Panik in the slot to make it 2-0. Kane’s crafty touch pass to Marcus Kruger made it 3-0. And Marian Hossa finished off a three-on-one off a pass from Ryan Hartman for his 25th goal 39 seconds after that.

Tanner Kero scored on a breakaway at 3:32 of the third to make it 5-0. Kero has a goal and two assists since being bumped up to the second line Monday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He had the best game of his NHL career against the Penguins, with a goal, an assist, five shots on goal and two blocked shots.

‘‘He’s played great,’’ Kane said. ‘‘I think he was good against Tampa the other night, and I thought he was great tonight. I just want to keep getting better as a line. It’s nice to have a little bit of consistency there, and it’s good that he’s taken advantage of the opportunity, too.’’

Goalie Corey Crawford (31 saves) did the rest. His best stops were a glove snare of a blast from the point by Justin Schultz with one second left in the second period and a stoning of a breakaway by Tom Kuhnhackl early in the third.

Bryan Rust broke up the shutout bid with a four-on-four goal at 5:46 of the third, the lone blemish on an otherwise-flawless night.

‘‘We wanted to stabilize this trip in terms of playing the right way from start to finish,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘There was a recent trend going into that Florida game [a 7-0 loss] where we weren’t where we needed — or wanted — to be.’’

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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