Artemi Panarin, Patrick Kane lead Blackhawks past Blue Jackets

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Artemi Panarin celebrates with teammates after scoring 32 seconds into Friday’s game against Columbus. (AP Photo)

The guy on the other end of the rink is probably going to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender. He entered the game with a goals-against average of 1.97, and hadn’t lost in regulation in more than a month, riding a 10-0-2 streak. But Corey Crawford wasn’t worried about out-dueling Sergei Bobrovsky.

“I mean, yeah, I know who’s on the other side, but it’s about playing hard and winning hockey games,” said Crawford Friday night following the Blackhawks’ 3-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. “For me, it’s playing against their attack. I couldn’t care less who’s on the other side.”

That sums up these last handful of games for the Blackhawks pretty well. It really doesn’t matter who they’re playing, but how they’re playing. The fact that the win was their second straight over an Eastern Conference powerhouse and Presidents’ Trophy contender was immaterial.

That their stars played like stars, their goaltending was superb, their penalty-kill was outstanding, and they played a tight, structured defensive game was all that mattered.

It was the Hawks’ 50th win of the season, marking only the second time they’ve reached that milestone (they had 52 in the 2009-10 season before going on to win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years). It also whittled the Hawks’ magic number for clinching the top seed in the Western Conference to two points. Patrick Kane had three assists to reach the 750-point mark for his career. And Artemi Panarin had two goals to put him in position to cash in on his $1.725 million bonus again.

But again, all that matters to the Hawks is that, after a brief hiccup, they’re rounding into form in time for the postseason.

“We’re happy with what we’ve achieved in the regular season,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “That’s not what we’re looking for, but it’s certainly put us in the spot we wanted. We’re not fighting in Game 82 to get in, so it’s been a good season in that regard.”

With four games left in the season, the Hawks just need to stay healthy. They got a brief scare early in the second period when Niklas Hjalmarsson crumpled in a heap after blocking a shot with the inside of his foot. Hjalmarsson being Hjalmarsson, he only missed one shift. But it served as a reminder that while the last four games don’t mean a heck of a lot, they can still have a major impact.

“You always keep your fingers crossed when something like that happens,” Marian Hossa said.

After jumping all over the Penguins early on Wednesday, the Hawks again pounced on one of the league’s top teams, as Panarin scored a power-play goal 32 seconds into the game. Columbus tied it at 17:15 with a power-play goal of its own, Nick Foligno smacking in a feed from Sam Gagner. But the Hawks responded just 22 seconds later, with Kane threading a pass between two Blue Jackets to Hossa, who made a terrific move to beat Bobrosvky off the rush. It was Hossa’s 26th goal of the season, and his fourth in the last six games since missing two games with an injury.

Bobrovsky and Crawford put on a goaltending clinic in the third, with Crawford stopping all 14 shots he faced to keep it a one-goal game until Panarin’s empty-netter in the final minute.

“Right now, [let’s] just build that momentum and keep building our game going into playoffs,” Kane said. “It’s obviously nice to start thinking about having home ice throughout the Western Conference finals. We feel we have a team in here that can make a deep run, and we love playing here in this building.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.


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