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Division games of Central importance as Hawks hit second half

Jets captain Andrew Ladd collides with Chicago's Niklas Hjalmarsson in Winnipeg's 5-1 win on Dec. 23. (AP Photo)

The Blackhawks are well aware that the Winnipeg Jets have beaten them twice in two meetings this season. They know that the St. Louis Blues have snuck up on them in the Central Division standings. And they definitely caught wind of the news Thursday that star goalie Pekka Rinne — the single biggest reason the Nashville Predators are in first place ahead of the Hawks — will miss three to five weeks with a knee injury.

The Stanley Cup playoffs start three months from Thursday. That might seem like a long way off, but with the halfway point of the season in their rear-view mirror, the Hawks are definitely starting to pay attention to the Central Division.

“I think all season long, you pay attention to it,” Patrick Sharp said. “But certainly in the second half, it amps up a bit more.”

Friday’s game against Winnipeg continues a stretch of 9-of-11 games against Central Division opponents, concluding Sunday with a home game against the Dallas Stars. Their troubles against the Jets aside, the Hawks have fared far better against the division this season than they did last season, when they went 13-13-3 and finished in third place, without home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

This season, they’re 12-5-0 against the Central.

“I think we try to pride ourselves on these games because we know maybe later int he year it’s going to be more important,” Patrick Kane said. “We treat these games like four-point games, where you’re hopefully stealing two from them and taking two for yourself.”

It’s not easy. The division is better than ever, with Nashville and Winnipeg — the only two teams in the division that didn’t make the playoffs last season — in first and fourth place, respectively, and showing no signs of letting up.

“Going into the year, you talked about the teams that made the playoffs last year,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “And you look at Nashville, that didn’t make it, and all of a sudden Winnipeg’s in the mix and making a case for themselves, as well. That’s how good our division is.”

Friday’s game against the Jets has added significance for two reasons. First, they’re the only team in the division the Hawks have yet to beat this season, falling 1-0 and 5-1, both at the United Center. Second, if the Hawks can take advantage of Rinne’s injury and regain first place down the stretch, the Jets remain their likeliest first-round opponent, having been firmly entrenched in fourth place for nearly two months.

“It’s too early to distinguish that, or even think of that,” Brent Seabrook said of potential playoff matchups. “We’ve got a long way to go here, still half the season. But it’s a big game, still. We’ve got to come with a better effort all around, stick to what we’re good at. They’ve come out of our building with two wins, and they’ve just outworked us.”

Quenneville agreed that it was way too early to be forecasting first-round matchups, but that the game was a chance to send a message — just in case.

“We’ve got to take care of our own business, and we want to make sure they don’t come in here and beat us all three times,” Quenneville said. “Because that’s not a good message to be [sending], and it would definitely get them excited if that were ever to happen.”

NOTES: Corey Crawford will start in goal for the Hawks against Winnipeg. … Quenneville shook up the power play units, moving Sharp off the point and in front of the net, where he had success early in his career in Philadelphia. The Hawks are 1-of-9 on the power play in their last four games.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus