Seth Jones’ return boosts Blackhawks with games against Wild, Avalanche looming

Jones and Dylan Strome will return from COVID-19 on Friday — and Kirby Dach might, too — as the increasingly healthy Hawks begin a brutal stretch of matchups.

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Seth Jones and the Blackhawks will face Wild twice and Avalanche once within just the next four days.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Seth Jones will return to the Blackhawks’ lineup Friday against the Wild after missing the last four games because of COVID-19.

Like almost every Hawks player who has contracted the virus this month, he was asymptomatic. That made it “frustrating” to miss games, considering peers in the same situation next month — after the NHL stops testing asymptomatic players — will not, and also considering the first game he missed was his Columbus pseudo-homecoming.

“It just sucked,” Jones said Thursday. “Going back there for the first time and playing against a former team in front of former fans would’ve been pretty cool. But it’ll have to wait until next year.”

Despite Thursday being his fourth straight day of skating, he nonetheless plans to keep his shifts short Friday, helping his breathing and conditioning ease back toward full performance.

But that will be easier said than done. This stretch of three games in four days against the top two teams in the Central Division — the Wild and Avalanche — could quickly become an all-hands-on-deck situation.

“It’s going to be a great challenge,” he said. “The past 10 days, we’ve been doing a lot of great things with our game and improving in a lot of areas. We need to continue to do that. We can’t give these teams anything for free.”

“You always hate saying, ‘Our playoffs start now,’ ” interim coach Derek King said. “But we have to approach it as if that’s our goal, to try to find a way to make the playoffs here.”

The Hawks (15-18-6) — despite their -4-0-1 run of late — entered Thursday sitting 11 points out of fourth place in the Central and nine points out of a wild-card spot.

The vast disparity in games played by each team makes that misleading, though, so consider this clearer breakdown: The Western Conference playoff cutoff line — set by the Kings — is currently pacing toward 92 points. The Hawks will need a possible-yet-implausible 57 points in their remaining 43 games — equivalent to a 27-13-3 record — to exceed that.

“There’s no quit in our game,” Marc-Andre Fleury said. “We have to keep pushing through this. I know there’s a lot of teams ahead of us, but . . . [it’s] still my goal, to try to keep climbing in the standings as much as possible.”

One beneficial thing is that the Hawks are steadily getting as healthy as they’ve been in months. Not only will Jones return Friday from COVID, but so will Dylan Strome, who occupied the first-line-center role between Patrick Kane and Brandon Hagel in practice Thursday.

Kirby Dach is a possibility to return Friday, too. That would leave only Brett Connolly in the COVID protocol, and he’ll be eligible to test out Saturday before the home-and-home rematch in Minnesota, King said.

Tyler Johnson is making steady progress recovering from his back surgery, participating in every practice with a white non-contact jersey. And no other Hawk has suffered a significant injury since Reese Johnson broke his clavicle Dec. 9.

In Jones’ case, his return should re-stabilize a defensive unit that finally started cracking against the Kraken. He was reunited with Jake McCabe on the top pair in practice.

During his absence, all of the Hawks’ other regular defensemen were asked to shoulder bigger loads. Connor Murphy’s ice time increased, on average, from 22:00 to 23:30 during those four games, while Calvin de Haan’s rose from 18:47 to 22:03, Erik Gustafsson’s from 16:08 to 20:19 and Riley Stillman’s from 14:26 to 17:21.

“It’s huge for our team,” King said. “He’s one of our best players, especially on the back end. . . . Seth [coming] back takes a little of their ice time away, but it allows less stress for those guys that [think] they have to produce like Seth.”

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