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Blackhawks clinch playoff spot with big third period vs. Canucks

There was no panic in the Blackhawks’ dressing room last week after they coasted through a dreadful four-game stretch and fell to a wild-card spot in the Western Conference, closer to ninth place than first. But there was frustration. There was urgency. And most importantly, there was a sense that the Hawks finally realized it was time to stop messing around, and start playing playoff hockey.

“I don’t know if we were tentative, or anxious, or nervous, but we definitely had to look at the standings knowing we’d better get our act together,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Because we were running out of time.”

Less than a week later, the Hawks have locked up a playoff spot and are no longer talking about the wild card. They’re talking about a Central Division championship.

After three straight rousing victories over playoff teams, including Thursday night’s 3-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks, the Hawks are one point behind the second-place St. Louis Blues, and three points behind the first-place Nashville Predators, with a game in hand on Nashville.

“Yeah, we want to make a push here and play good,” Marcus Kruger said. “We can only worry about what we do here, but we want to win every game we play here. It’s only going to be important games and we want to be ready for the playoffs, and give ourselves the best possible chance to go deep.”

The playoff berth they clinched with Thursday’s win was nice, but largely inevitable, and old hat by now. There was no champagne, no whooping and hollering. It’s their seventh straight, after all. What matters most to the Hawks is that, suddenly, they’re playing what they keep saying is “the right way.” They responded to last week’s wakeup call with what now appears to be a season-defining, comeback, last-minute victory in Winnipeg; a rout of the defending champion Los Angeles Kings; and now a rousing third period against the Canucks. Crisis averted.

The trick moving forward? To not get comfortable again. To not get complacent again. To keep playing with that desperation and intensity over the final five games of the regular season, even if it’s no longer a desperate situation.

Corey Crawford admitted after the game that the Hawks tend to play better against better teams. Well, the dead-last, tanking Buffalo Sabres are up next, on the road Friday night.

“Even if we’re able to clinch a playoff spot soon, the motivation is still to be the best we can be, to carry the momentum going into the playoffs, and just be ready to play our best hockey of the year when it counts,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said before the game. “Even if we were in a playoff spot and to some people they’re meaningless, they still have some meaning to us, to the guys in the locker room.”

Much of Thursday’s win probably wasn’t the Hawks had in mind. They staggered through power plays, hesitated on direct plays, passed up on scoring chances and made one of their ghastliest turnovers of the season, a Michal Rozsival pass that led to Vancouver’s lone goal.

But as they did in Winnipeg, the Hawks turned it on in the third period.

Toews’ rebound of a Marian Hossa tip, and Kruger’s steal-and-score breakaway — each immediately following a spectacular Crawford save in the third period — broke open a 1-1 game. Kruger had one of his finest games: scoring, setting up Teuvo Teravainen’s first-period goal, and winning 13-of-19 faceoffs, as the fourth line had a big night. And Crawford made 34 saves, keeping the Hawks in it until they could finally pull away.

The Hawks have proven time and again that momentum is a nebulous thing, turning losing streaks into winning streaks and vice versa, and turning playoff deficits into stirring series wins. And while they’re aiming for a division title and home-ice advantage, their most immediate goal is simply to be playing playoff hockey heading into the postseason.

And after their worst stretch of the season, they’re almost there. Almost.

“We should be happy clinching a playoff spot,” Quenneville said. “But we’ve still got some work to do.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus