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Blackhawks separating themselves from the Central pack

Duncan Keith and the Blackhawks have an 18-point lead on James Neal and the Predators. (Getty Images)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In a 20-day span, the Blackhawks went from third place to first place, erasing a 13-point Dallas Stars lead, as nearly every other team in the Central Division stumbled through the first couple of weeks of 2016.

To be sure, the other teams in the division noticed. But the Predators — who went from being in a virtual tie with the Hawks to being 18 points back and just out of the Western Conference playoff picture in those same 20 days — are more worried about what they’re doing than what the Hawks are doing.

“You look once in a while but if you look every night, it’s different,” Predators defenseman Shea Weber said. “Teams are in, teams are out, moving up and down every night. It can get a little bit — I don’t know what the word is. You obviously take a peek and see where you are, but I don’t think you’re constantly looking to see if you moved in, moved out. You just try to focus on your game.”

On the offensive

Erik Gustafsson’s offensive skills have earned him a major role with the Hawks, as the No. 4 defenseman alongside Brent Seabrook. Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said Gustafsson’s defensive game is improving every day, but it’s his offensive skills that stand out the most. Turns out Gustafsson started out as a forward as a kid, switching to defense at age 10.

“I like to play the power play and all that stuff,’ he said. “I like to have the puck on my tape. I like to create some offense for the forwards, too. I like to have the puck.”

On the farm

Bryan Bickell scored an empty-net goal Monday night in his return to the Rockford IceHogs. It was his eighth goal in 13 AHL games this season. Former Hawks center Jake Dowell is the IceHogs’ leading scorer with seven goals and 17 assists in 37 games. Defenseman Ville Pokka, acquired in the Nick Leddy trade with the Islanders last fall, is second with six goals and 17 assists in 39 games.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus