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Joy is back for Blackhawks amid best run of season

The Blackhawks are fun again.

They’re riding high in their most impressive run of the season and looking to make it four consecutive victories when they host the Panthers on Sunday. It’s a better product on the ice and a more enjoyable workplace for the men who trudged through a 9-18-5 start.

Minutes after wrapping up a gritty win at Colorado, there was laughter in the locker room. And an impromptu pizza party. Players enjoyed the moment, showing no urgency to catch their flight home. Artem Anisimov was in the middle of describing his game-winning goal when a teammate shoved a slice of pepperoni in among the -media’s recorders.

“We’re competing more, winning a few games,” Alex DeBrincat said. “It’s a better feeling in the locker room, pretty positive feel. We know we’re trending in the right direction.”

They’ve always seemed to think that. Now they actually know it.

It’ll still take an incredible turnaround to scrap for a playoff berth, but the very notion sounds a fraction less crazy after the Hawks swept a back-to-back at Dallas and Colorado. Jeremy Colliton and his players are blending, and this team no longer looks like a pushover.

The Hawks are 4-1-1 in their last six games, a slice of the schedule in which every opponent was top-four in their respective division. They beat three of the four best teams in the Central and took the first-place Jets to overtime.

The nine points they claimed over the last week and a half got them out of the basement, and they’re stabilizing as they hit the season’s midpoint.

It’s validation for Colliton — not that he was waiting for it. His philosophies on line combinations, defense and pace have gotten results, reaffirming his belief that the season was beginning to turn.

“It’s just we’re all impatient,” he said. “We want to get to the end. We want to get to the cookies, right?”

He says that now, but he felt the weight of the losses. He knew how it sounded when the coach of one of the worst teams in the league kept saying his group was playing better than its record showed.

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“When the results aren’t there, it gets old making that case even if you do believe it,” he said. “So nice for the team, nice for the mood, to get a little positive reinforcement, and then hopefully that gives us the energy and the motivation to keep going.”

It feeds itself. There’s naturally going to be more buy-in from the players as Colliton’s moves prove profitable, and that gives him credibility to keep maneuvering.

To both sides’ credit, though, he seemed to have the locker room’s faith all along. Jonathan Toews was among those echoing Colliton’s confidence when the team was losing.

“We played some good hockey even when we were losing games, but we just felt a little fragile in some of those situations where the game’s on the line,” Toews said. “I think it’s showing much more poise, much more character given the fact that we can … play our best hockey when it counts and win some of these really important games.”

Colliton’s scheme is working, but Toews hit on the other half of it. Aside from the ugly loss to the Sharks, this stretch has required the Hawks to be resolute late in games.

This upswing began with them going up 4-3 early in the third period against the Penguins and making the lead last until empty-net time. They got late goals from Erik Gustafsson to beat the Predators and tie the Jets. They hung on to one-goal leads in the third period against the Stars and Avalanche for the final 14 and 19 minutes, respectively.

The Hawks believe they’re still a good team, and they have lived up to it lately. The question now is whether this is a permanent shift or merely a pleasant diversion in a sunken season.

NOTE: The Hawks called up forward Jacob Nilsson from Rockford and sent down forward Luke Johnson. Nilsson, 25, could make his NHL debut Sunday.