Blackhawks hope series against Lightning demonstrates improvement since January

The Hawks begin their brutal March schedule with three games against the Lightning, who humiliated them in the first series of the season. But the Hawks believe they’re a different, better team now.

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The Blackhawks’ game against the Lightning on Thursday will be their first meeting since Jan. 15 and 17.

The Blackhawks’ game against the Lightning on Thursday will be their first meeting since Jan. 15 and 17.

Chris O’Meara/AP

The Blackhawks’ first two games of the season went as poorly as possible.

But the Hawks believe they’re different now than they were in January, when they lost 5-1 and 5-2 on the road to the Lightning.

And with the Lightning up again — this time for a three-game series, this time at the United Center, this time with both teams holding Central Division playoff spots — they have a clear-cut opportunity to prove that.

“If you want to advance [in the playoffs], first of all, you’ve got to get in, so you’ve got to put points on the board now,” coach Jeremy Colliton said Tuesday. “If you do get in, you’re more than likely going to face a team of [the Lightning’s] quality.

‘‘It’s an opportunity for us to raise our game and rise to the challenge. Of course, we’re excited to see how we handle it.”

Colliton held a thorough hour-long practice and will do so again Wednesday to prepare the Hawks for this series. The lines were the same as in their 7-2 victory Sunday against the Red Wings.

It’s rare to see the Hawks practice two times immediately before a back-to-back — the Hawks and Lightning will play Thursday night, Friday night and Sunday afternoon — but this is also an extremely important stretch.

The schedule doesn’t get any easier, sending the Hawks on a six-game road trip for two games each against the Stars, the upstart Panthers and the Lightning again.

“Everyone knows the schedule,” Colliton said. “There’s been a lot of discussion about that on the outside. On the inside, we just have to focus on the next game. We can take these three as a mini-playoff series. That’s all we should be looking at.”

Winning even a miniature series against Tampa Bay will be no easy task, though.

After going 62-16-4 and 43-21-6 the last two regular seasons, then winning the Stanley Cup in September, the Lightning have picked up where they left off with a 14-4-1 record (entering Tuesday).

Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s .938 save percentage has cemented him as the clear favorite to win his second Vezina Trophy in three years. Defenseman Victor Hedman is always in the running for the Norris Trophy. Up front, captain Steven Stamkos, who’s finally healthy, is complemented by Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Selke Trophy candidate Anthony Cirelli.

“They’re all on the same page in their systems — they’re just supporting each other,” Hawks goalie Malcolm Subban said. “If one guy gets beat, another one’s there to help. It feels like they’re always on top of you. And they turn the puck around in transition real quick, [so] you have to be prepared to backcheck.”

The Lightning dominated the Jan. 15 season opener, limiting the Hawks to two high-danger scoring chances — their fewest since December 2016. The Jan. 17 rematch was more competitive through two periods, but not in the third.

Colliton’s tactical game plan this time revolves around clean execution with the puck, especially on defensive-zone breakouts and neutral-zone plays in which turnovers can lead to immediate, dangerous transition rushes.

The Hawks have grown more comfortable with Colliton’s systems since January — that’s how they’ve gone 12-4-3 since the opening road trip — so they likely will show improvement in that regard.

But the psychological aspect of going toe-to-toe with the league’s best team is another hurdle — a hurdle that five wins against the Red Wings can’t help with. The Hawks must learn how to handle that this week.

“The message is, for sure, don’t give up that much respect,” defenseman Nikita Zadorov said. “You still have to be confident on the ice. You have to believe in yourself, know what you can do and know what you’re good at, and then go out and play your hockey.”

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