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Dominant circus trip establishes Blackhawks among best in West

LOS ANGELES — The Blackhawks started their circus trip on the playoff bubble, tied for eighth place in the Western Conference with the Winnipeg Jets.

They’ll return to Chicago early Sunday morning as maybe the class of the conference.

“They’re the best team in the league, and that’s clear through the first two months of the year,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said after the Hawks beat the defending Stanley Cup champions 4-1 at Staples Center on Saturday night. “If you’re going to give them two goals, you’re probably going to get your [butt] kicked, and that’s exactly what happened.”

The Hawks went 5-1 on the circus trip, handily beating the conference-leading Ducks and the champion Kings in a 32-hour span over the weekend to cap it off. They’ve won six of seven overall, and they’ve done it without last year’s leading scorer, Patrick Sharp, who could return sometime this week.

“We got off to an ordinary start,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “But we can see the team trending in the right direction. It’s a sign that, hey, we’re coming. When we play the right way, we’re a dangerous team.”

Saturday’s win was led once again by the red-hot second line of Brad Richards centering Kris Versteeg and Patrick Kane. Richards scored twice, with Daniel Carcillo and Brandon Saad picking up the other tallies. Corey Crawford made 19 saves in his 14th consecutive start.

Richards joked that he wished he would have done that the last time he was at Staples Center — the decisive Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final last year, when he was with the New York Rangers. But he’ll gladly take the 5-1 road trip, with more tough games looming against St. Louis, Montreal and Nashville this week.

“That’s huge,” he said. “Halfway through the trip we were maybe right around a playoff spot, on the bubble. We talked about trying to gain ground and gain momentum going into the second 20 games and we did a great job of coming together here. Big tests, really all good teams as we went through it. We piled up five out of six, which was huge.”

Corey Crawford backstopped the entire trip. In fact, he’s played 14 consecutive games, posting a gaudy .928 save percentage during that stretch.

“It’s pretty big,” Crawford said of the Southern California sweep. “It started with the second half of the trip in Colorado. We got a big win there in a tight game. And then against probably two of the top teams in the West, we had probably our two best games of the trip. It was a great job by everyone. We’re all on the same page, and we’re all battling together. It was a good road trip for us.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus