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Blackhawks’ 4-3 loss to Flames a bitter pill after sweet stretch of better play

The air was smelling sweeter for the Blackhawks heading into Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Flames at the United Center. Food was tasting better. Even sleep had become more satisfying.

What a great time to be alive for coach Jeremy Colliton and this team.

Are we laying it on thick enough?

Really, though, the Hawks’ 6-2-1 spurt over the nine games before this one reflected a lot of legitimately high-quality play from a team that had sputtered, wheezed and sleep-walked for much of the first six weeks after Colliton took over for the fired Joel Quenneville.

Johnny Gaudreau beats Collin Delia to open the scoring in the Flames's 4-3 victory over the Blackhawks. | Matt Marton (AP)

Thirty games into his first coaching job in the NHL, Colliton does have a much-improved team on his hands compared with the ragtag group that bumbled around on this ice well into December.

It’s enough to make a young coach smile a bit more than he did early on.

“Well, it helps to win,” he said. “It makes it easier to come to the rink. Just like it does for the players, it’s the same for us. … We’re here to win. It’s a results business. So when we get a little success, everyone’s happier.”

The run of good play by the Hawks (16-22-7) is part of the reason the loss to the Flames (27-13-4) left a bitter taste. This performance was marred by the sort of breakdowns — and old-fashioned bad luck — that hadn’t reared their ugly heads for a while.

There was a start to the game that Colliton described as lacking “juice.” There was a flurry of Hawks penalties — three of them by Dylan Strome — in the second and third periods that kept handing momentum back to one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Despite all that, there were enough near-misses offensively that it seemed almost unfair the Hawks didn’t find themselves ahead by multiple goals.

Still, the Hawks led 2-1 late in the second period before a power-play goal by Sean Monahan tied it. They then withered in the third, when the Flames pounded goalie Collin Delia — who played well yet again — with 18 shots.

“That’s a 2-2 game after two,” Patrick Kane said. “We’ve got to find a way to get [points] out of that game. It’s unfortunate.”

The Hawks fell to a hard-to-believe 1-10-2 vs. the Pacific Division and had to swallow a three-game season sweep by the Flames. The spectacular line of Johnny Gaudreau, Monahan and Elias Lindholm produced six points in the finale and a whopping 19 points overall in the three games.

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Kane gave the building a charge with a first-period back-handed gem from a difficult angle to make it 1-1. He assisted on a go-ahead goal in the second from Alex DeBrincat, who became the eighth player in franchise history — and the first since Artemi Panarin — to start his career with consecutive 20-goal seasons.

“We need points, we need to get them every night and that’s what we’re battling for,” DeBrincat said. “Overall, I thought we played all right. But we didn’t get any points, so it doesn’t really help us.”

Colliton admits he has been allowing his eye to wander to the league standings lately — after victories only — but mostly he’s staying focused on incremental improvements from his players. And those improvements are coming.

“The special teams is getting better, [and] the power play,” he said. “We’ve got some really good goaltending. I like that we haven’t quit in games. We’ve come from behind in games. We’ve had some really good starts in games. We’ve won in different ways, and we’ve played some really good teams.”

For a while, it felt like another one of those good nights. Are these Hawks changed for the better on a permanent basis? It’s too soon to say that. To even suggest it might be laying it on too thick.