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Blackhawks fail to gain ground in loss to Minnesota

You’ll hear a lot about home-ice advantage in the coming weeks — about sleeping in your own bed, about eating home-cooked meals, about having the ability to match lines.

Unless, of course, the players you’re talking to don’t have home-ice advantage. Then you’ll hear a lot about team bonding on the road, about being free from family distractions, about simpler game plans.

Funny how that works.

“If you’ve got it, it’s good,” Antoine Vermette said with a smirk. “If you don’t, it’s not a big deal.”

Well, it slipped a little further away from the Hawks on Tuesday in a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild, their second straight defeat after a four-game win streak put the Central Division title within reach. Mikael Granlund put in a Zach Parise rebound at 9:30 of the third period to break a scoreless tie, and Jason Zucker added an insurance goal at 13:14 to spoil what had been an outstanding night from Corey Crawford.

Bryan Bickell scored with Crawford pulled for an extra attacker with 1:48 left in the game, but the Wild hung on. The win clinched a playoff spot for Minnesota, which hasn’t lost two straight in regulation since acquiring goaltender Devan Dubnyk in mid-January.

The first-place Blues and second-place Predators both lost, too, on Tuesday, maintaining the status quo in the division race. The third-place Hawks — who have scored one goal in each of their last two games — remain three points behind St. Louis with two games to go.

Crawford made 28 saves — including breakaways from Kyle Brodziak and Jonas Brodin — but was outdueled by Dubnyk (32 saves) in a defensive battle.

The Hawks wrapped up their home schedule with a 24-12-5 record. On the road, they’re 24-14-1, illustrating just how little home ice really means.

“We’ve been playing well on the road most of the season, but I think we failed a little bit during the regular season to take advantage of our home ice,” Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “But I guess that’s a challenge for us coming into the playoffs, and we’ll try to improve on that.”

After the game, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville extolled the virtues of home ice, but noted, “I think we’re much more effective on the road this year.”

With a playoff berth locked up, and with the parity in the division and the Western Conference so rampant — some of the scariest teams, such as the Wild, are at the bottom of the playoff picture, not the top — home-ice advantage is basically all the Hawks are playing for in this final week. A division title is always a goal, but there’s no ideal first-round matchup, no easy path to the Stanley Cup Final.

“All the teams are so even now with the salary cap,” Hjalmarsson said. “The first round is probably going to feel like a conference final, every single matchup. It doesn’t really matter who you play in the first round, it’s going to be a heck of a challenge, whoever you play.”

Besides, home-ice is a bit overblown. Do you want it? Of course. Do you need it? Of course, not. The Hawks didn’t have it in the first round last year, dropped the first two games in St. Louis, then won four straight. The Hawks had it in the Western Conference final last year, and lost Game 7 at the United Center to the Kings, who’ve won the Stanley Cup as an eight seed and a six seed in the last three seasons.

So is home-ice overrated?

“Only if we don’t have it,” Quenneville quipped.

With two games left, including a showdown in St. Louis on Thursday, it’s still within reach for the Hawks. And they’d certainly prefer to have it than not have it.

“Any advantage you can get, you want,” Hawks defenseman Johnny Oduya said. “Even if it’s not much. You get one more game at home, the travel’s a little bit easier, you sleep in your own bed. There are a couple of perks to it. It’s something worth fighting for.”

Just not worth fretting over. After all, as Andrew Shaw was quick to point out, the Hawks have set a franchise record with 24 road victories this season, with two left on the schedule — Thursday in St. Louis and Saturday in Colorado. That said, if the Hawks do have home ice in a series and take care of business at the United Center, their road prowess really can come into play.

“If we get home ice, playing on the road in Games 3 and 4, it just gives us that much more of a chance,” Shaw said.

Yeah, but…

“But it’s the playoffs,” Bickell said. “Momentum can switch.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus