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Blackhawks’ intensity rising — and patience wearing thin — in closing stretch

Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy still can close his eyes and practically feel — with a wince — the pain caused by the direct hit of a screaming puck last season in Pittsburgh.

“It got me in the junk, right in between the legs,” he said. “I had to go back behind the bench because I thought I was going to throw up. That was the worst pain I’ve ever been in from a blocked shot.”

The man paints a lovely picture, does he not?

Fortunately, Murphy was none the worse for wear despite having blocked seven shots — his most in just over three years — in Saturday’s clutch 2-1 Hawks victory over the Stars in Dallas. With the Coyotes on tap Monday night at the United Center, Murphy and the Hawks, in must-win mode with 14 games to go, don’t really have the luxury of feeling their aches and pains anyway.

Duncan Keith has no time for your annoying questions. | AP

“We have to play with intensity, compete, just be hard to play against,” he said. “It’s that end-of-the-year mentality of being tight and not giving up anything easy. It’s just having that intensity and passion to try to win every game and make the playoffs.”

The Hawks are a distant seven points behind the wild-card pace in the Western Conference, needing to leapfrog three teams to extend their season. The red-hot Coyotes, with 73 points, have risen to ninth in the West. They are one point behind current No. 2 wild card Minnesota.

It’s all about must-have victories and playoff-like atmospheres for these teams now.

“Any competitor, you want to play in these type of games,” Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “It’s easy to prepare because you don’t have to worry about [manufacturing] that feeling, that energy that you get. You get butterflies? You know you’re ready, then. Sometimes in January, and old matchup is hard; you’ve got to get creative to get that feeling. But there shouldn’t be any issues in games like these.”

Jonathan Toews was asked after Monday’s morning skate if the Hawks tend to play better against teams ahead of them in the standings than they do against teams below them. It was a bit of an odd question given the Hawks occupy last place in the Central Division. The veteran captain — ever savvy and astute — kindly pointed this out.

“Everyone’s good nowadays, so I think you have to raise your [own] level,” he said. “Right now, we just know that with the meaning of these points and these games, every game is going to be tough. The playoffs have already started, if you ask me.”

The tension throughout this team clearly is higher. Emotions are ratcheted up, too, which has a way of also meaning patience is down a level or two.

An exchange grizzled defenseman Duncan Keith had with a different reporter was illustrative of a desperate team’s patience wearing thin. An innocent enough question — coincidentally, about blocking shots — was put to the two-time Norris Trophy winner, who snarled at it as though it were a puck bound for an empty net in the Hawks’ end.

The question, essentially, sought to determine if blocking shots is a matter of team culture or individual wiring. In other words, does it simply have to be in a guy’s DNA to put his body on the line like that?

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s in your DNA,” Keith said. “Who knows what’s in DNA?”

The reporter took another, ill-fated stab.

“I know what you’re asking, OK?” Keith snapped. “I got it. I answered.”

Let the “playoffs” continue.