Blackhawks head into All-Star break with sudden surge of optimism

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Anthony Duclair had a goal and two assists, and was a plus-4 in Thursday’s win over the Red Wings. (AP Photo)

TAMPA, Fla. — Thursday night was a good night for the Blackhawks’ future. Twenty-year-old Alex DeBrincat and 22-year-old Anthony Duclair combined for four goals and three assists while playing top-line minutes with Jonathan Toews, boosting the idea that the Hawks have high-end young players who can fill top-six roles in the very near future.

It was a good night for the Hawks’ present, too. Not only did they beat the Red Wings 5-1 to snap a four-game losing streak, but the Avalanche lost. So did the Wild. So did the Stars. And suddenly, the Hawks were just four points behind the (gulp) four teams tied for the last wild-card spot heading into the All-Star break.

“It’s only one game,” coach Joel Quenneville cautioned. “But I thought we did a lot of good things in our two prior games without getting a ‘W.’ Maybe there’s a corner that’s turned. Let’s come out of this break here with some excitement and see where it takes us.”

The Hawks will be walking a fine line over the next few weeks. Does general manager Stan Bowman, who has a history of swinging for the fences at the trade deadline, realize this team is more than one player away from contending? After putting younger players in bigger roles lately, does Quenne-ville start leaning on safety-blanket veterans again (Patrick Sharp and Lance Bouma were healthy scratches in Detroit) if the race gets tighter? Does goalie Corey Crawford rush himself back (or get rushed back) from his head injury if the Hawks start climbing?

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The answer to all of these questions should be no, of course. The Hawks aren’t one player away from being a Stanley Cup contender. DeBrincat, Duclair, Vinnie Hinostroza and other young players have delivered better and with more urgency than many of the veterans. And Crawford’s long-term health is far more important than squeaking into the playoffs.

But the fact that one good night can suddenly raise those questions shows that, as dire as things look, the Hawks aren’t dead quite yet. It’s tough to move up in the league’s best division, especially with so many teams to leapfrog and so many overtimes creating three-point games. But the schedule gives the Hawks plenty of opportunities to make up ground — or fall hopelessly behind for good, for that matter. They play the Avalanche, Blues and Jets three more times each, the Flames, Kings and Ducks twice and the Predators and Wild once.

Even before Thursday’s game, Quenneville bristled at the idea of using these last 10 weeks to experiment with his roster and look ahead to next season. Even if things really go south.

“Whatever the case is, I still think that the whole philosophy is we’re going to do everything we can to win every single night,” he said. “So I don’t know if that’ll change much.”

The challenge of keeping this young and inexperienced roster — seems strange to describe a Hawks roster in that way, but it’s true — upbeat and mentally engaged falls on the Hawks’ dwindling leadership core. Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Kane have to keep the kids hopeful in the face of very long odds.

Asked about how that leadership manifests itself, Keith said what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room. But he also echoed something Toews has said since training camp — that the younger players and fringe players need to be more than just along for the ride. It’s not core guys and other guys — it’s just the guys.

“Everybody leads in their own way,” Keith said. “Even the young guys, we’ve encouraged to take some ownership in the leadership. It doesn’t just fall on [Toews] and two or three guys. . . . It’s a work in progress for everybody.”

On the ice, in the room and in the standings.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.


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