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Blackhawks let loose at Madison Square Garden before facing New York Rangers

NEW YORK — The Blackhawks had Madison Square Garden all to themselves Wednesday and made a fun afternoon out of it.

Jeremy Colliton didn’t see a purpose in hammering the players for their debacle two nights earlier against the Devils. He turned them loose and let them get back to what they love.

They worked for about 45 minutes in the empty arena — “It’s not often you get to practice in this barn,” joked Colliton, who was in a surprisingly light mood. Most of the session was spent on three-on-three overtime simulation and some scrappy two-on-two with the nets at the blue lines.

He picked drills the players love, and he might know what he’s doing, because the Hawks had the juice they have been missing. They were aggressive and boisterous — a well-timed spark before they come back to this building Thursday to play the Rangers.

Alex DeBrincat and the Blackhawks got to have fun at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Will they return the favor for Jeremy Colliton against the Rangers on Thursday? | Matt Marton/AP

“Happy hockey players are good hockey players,” Colliton said. “Let’s get them going. Let’s have energy.”

That would be much different than whatever the Hawks want to call their effort in the 8-5 loss to the Devils on Monday. They need to come alive immediately, because they’re not even at the All-Star break, and they’re already running out of time to make this season mean something.

Their miniscule odds at clawing into the playoffs took a hit as they stumbled through an 0-2-2 week. They’re eight points out of the final wild-card spot, and Money Puck calculated a far better chance of them winning the draft lottery (11.1 percent) than making the postseason (1.96 percent).

The Hawks seem undaunted — publicly, at least. They keep saying they have the talent to make a run, but it might be too late by the time they get around to it. Fellow stragglers, like the Devils and Rangers, are the teams they need to feast on, but they haven’t shown the appetite.

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“It’s urgent all the time in the league now — everything’s so tight, everybody’s so good,” said Brent Seabrook, perhaps inadvertently illustrating the Hawks’ post-dynasty reality. The opponents didn’t always seem so fearsome.

“You just got to — we’ve got to be better,” Seabrook continued. “We’ve got to be better from the start of the game right away and try to string some wins together.”

His unit needs to lead the way. The offense is adequate, but the team is allowing the second-most shots on goal in the league at 34.9 per game, and many of those are prime looks. Every shooter loves seeing the Hawks, who have given up a league-high 178 goals, come to town.

“It’s frustrating,” Seabrook said. “You want to be up in the top 10 in the league in that kind of thing. . . . Just gotta be better at that.”

The trouble is, at least for the remainder of this season, they have to figure it out with who they have.

It’s hard to imagine the Hawks being a buyer as they approach next month’s trade deadline. Most likely, their defensemen must clean up their own mess. If that’s not possible, the season will stay on its current course.

Seabrook has had subpar stretches, but Colliton thinks he has been better lately. Erik Gustafsson can be an asset, but he seems preoccupied trying to score, so Colliton benched him in the third period for not playing defense. The issues go on and on.

“Everyone can be better,” Colliton said. “I don’t think anyone’s at their maximum level.”

If that’s true, then it might come down to enthusiasm for the job. Colliton seems to see that as a significant portion of the pie chart for the Hawks’ struggles, and a big part of his job is figuring out how to boost them to the requisite effort.

He let them have a good time at the Garden. They can return the favor with a lively performance Thursday night.