Sputtering Blackhawks in need of another November reign

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The ever-changing line combinations, the hot-and-cold offense, the maddening inconsistency, the mild-but-mounting frustration — the Blackhawks have been here before. Exactly here, actually.

Through 15 games last season, the Hawks were 8-6-1.

Through 15 games this season, the Hawks are 8-6-1.

“Ended up pretty good last year,” Andrew Shaw said with a smile.

Fair enough. And it was right around this time of year last season that everything came together for the Hawks — a scorching 13-2 stretch that including a 5-1 circus trip and an eight-game win streak that served as a reminder to the league that no matter the situation and no matter the standings, the Hawks are always dangerous, always contenders.

And with injuries to key players such as Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa and Michal Rozsival, and with so many rookies and new faces in the lineup, they certainly have good reason to think things can only get better from here.

But things are a little different this year. The team is far younger, far less experienced, with far less depth. The team defense is shoddier, too — last year, that 8-6-1 record came with just 28 goals against; this year, it’s with a troubling 38 goals against. The road record is more alarming, too — 1-5-0 this year, as compared with 3-3-0 at this point last year.

And perhaps most disconcerting, the stacked Central Division appears to be even better, with the Dallas Stars — a non-playoff team last season — leading the way. The Hawks were in fourth place in the division after their middling start last year. They’re in sixth right now.

If a similar spring-boarding stretch is going to happen, the sooner the better.

“Definitely,” Marian Hossa said. “You cannot waste any time, because those points are going to be really important at the end of the season. After winning the first Cup [in 2010], we struggled to get into the playoffs, and waited till the last game. You don’t want to get to that position.”

Joel Quenneville is desperately searching for some balance in his lineup, which accounts for all the lineup changes. The second line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane have accounted for 20 goals, while the other 14 forwards who have played have combined for just 13. Brandon Mashinter was called up Wednesday and will play Thursday against New Jersey, becoming the sixth Rockford forward to get a chance already this season, as Quenneville takes advantage of the extra cap space he has with Keith on long-term injured reserve to tinker and figure out what lineup can actually succeed.

“That’s not going to get it done,” Quenneville said of being a one-line team. “Capturing balance is what we’re looking to do. That line will certainly be getting more attention moving forward here, and it’s up to other guys to step forward.”

It’s hardly time to panic. Hossa said at the start of the season that he felt it would take 15-20 games for all the new faces to grasp the Hawks’ system, and he reiterated that point on Wednesday. Niklas Hjalmarsson all but laughed after last week’s underwhelming loss at New Jersey when asked if the team is sweating its sputtering start, saying, “It takes a while for us to panic; we’ve been around for a long time.” But even the always-cool Hjalmarsson noted the challenge that the Central Division poses this season, and that the time is now for the Hawks to get their act together — especially with seven of the next nine games on the road.

This is where it all turned around for the Hawks last year. But this isn’t last year, and this isn’t last year’s team. Certainly not yet, at least.

“We know it’s a long season, and there’s a lot of ups and downs,” said Keith, who could return this weekend. “Our mindset isn’t to just sit back and think in our minds that everything’s going to be OK. It’s a matter of going out there and executing and working every day to get better, and have that chemistry, and try to win every single game.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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