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Blackhawks’ next five games provide chance to prove legitimacy in Central Division race

The Hawks will face the Stars twice, the Avalanche twice and the Blues once in this upcoming stretch.

The Blackhawks will begin a stretch of five straight in-division games with a home-and-home against the Stars.
AP Photos

Despite their much-improved play in November, the Blackhawks will enter the weekend 11 points behind the Central Division-leading Blues and only two points ahead of the last-place Wild.

Such is the nature of parity in the NHL. The margins are small — every team in the Western Conference has between nine and 14 wins right now. But overcoming those margins is hard.

The Hawks, though, have a rare chance to do so in the next two weeks.

“It’s perfect timing actually,” Robin Lehner said Friday. “I don’t think the standings are anything outrageous right now. Perfect time to go on a roll.”

After facing division opponents in just three of their first 22 contests (going 1-1-1 in those), the Hawks’ next five games are all against Central foes: at Dallas on Saturday, then vs. Dallas, vs. Colorado, at Colorado, and vs. St. Louis.

It’s their first time playing consecutive home-and-home series since 2010, and both home-and-homes are against teams the Hawks (with 22 points so far) are chasing. The Stars are the league’s second-hottest team, owning a 12-1-1 record since Oct. 19, and have climbed to 28 points. The Avalanche, living up to expectations as one of this year’s breakout teams, also have 28 points.

But four or five wins in this stretch could change the complexion of the division standings substantially — and prove the Hawks’ legitimacy in this race.

“It’s very big,” Jeremy Colliton said. “An opportunity to pull teams in or put distance between us and them. It’ll certainly look different in the standings after this week, depending on how the results go.”

Colliton said he doesn’t change the strategy much for a home-and-home, even though both teams will get very accustomed to each other over 120 minutes of hockey, but it does make it especially likely the Lehner-Corey Crawford goalie rotation will continue.

The main focus will be returning to the high-flying, speed-based style that led to the recent four-game winning streak, and making small adjustments to disrupt the Stars’ and Avs’ pre-scouting. The Hurricanes and Lightning seemed to know what to expect from the Hawks, and how to stop it, better than the opponents right after Colliton’s schematic switch.

“Obviously we’re chasing playoff spots, and we caught up quite a bit, and now we lost two,” Lehner said. “The next five, we can just turn it around and go on a roll here. When you win against division opponents, you climb a little bit faster.”

This stretch will obviously bring back memories of a momentous weekend last February, when the Hawks played well but lost home games against these same Stars and Avalanche teams, dealing what proved to be a fatal blow to their playoff push.

Colliton said over the summer that that weekend — despite the on-paper disappointment — gave him “a lot of hope moving forward,” because he saw the Hawks playing playoff-caliber hockey.

If they want this season to contain actual playoff hockey, though, they’ll need to succeed both visually and on the scoreboard during stretches like this.

The Hawks’ postseason odds had surged to 55 percent on Monday, per Money Puck, but have since slid back down to 43 percent. Such odds are far from vital this early in the season, and with this level of parity throughout the conference, but the next five games could nonetheless make a large and lasting difference.

“I don’t think we’ve lost the momentum — I think we know what we can do,” Jonathan Toews said Thursday. “Back on the road this weekend, so back to that same mentality of playing simple hockey.”