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Volatile first half sets stage for Blackhawks’ big dreams after All-Star break

The Blackhawks’ best games are also their most maddening, and the fluctuations this season have been volatile enough to cause motion sickness.

They stumbled through two eight-game losing streaks as they plunged to the bottom of the NHL, then sprung to life with a 4-1-1 stretch in December against a bunch of playoff-bound opponents.

In the run-up to the All-Star break, they got drubbed 8-5 by the lowly Devils, then clobbered the defending champion Capitals by the same score. They closed the first half of the season by taking down the Metropolitan Division-leading Islanders on Tuesday, slamming the door on New York’s five-game winning streak.

“I don’t know — we play well against these good teams,” said Patrick Kane, echoing a mystified frustration shared by anyone who watches the Hawks. “We could take some momentum from that, and obviously we’re thinking about making the playoffs.”

Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks went into the All-Star break feeling great. Can they keep it up? | Nuccio DiNuzzo/AP

Kane won’t let that go.

Three weeks ago, he mentioned getting the Hawks into the hunt by now. They’re still lagging at 45 points, while the Avalanche and Canucks went into Wednesday’s games tied for the second wild-card spot at 52.

The new goal is staying mathematically alive as long as possible, and that will be the rallying cry when the Hawks resume Feb. 1 at the Sabres. They come out of the break with 7 of 10 games against teams currently outside the playoff field.

Granted, not one of those teams is behind the Hawks. But after big wins over the Capitals and Islanders, they’ll spend the break dreaming big.

“[We’ll] sit on this result for quite a few days, so good for everyone’s mental health,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “We played hard. We deserved to win. That should make everybody feel good to come back with more energy.”

Putting aside the math of what it would take for the Hawks to break 90 points and give themselves a chance at the playoffs, there is good cause to be optimistic about them playing well when they return.

They’re 9-6-4 since they started clicking in December, which is a 95-point pace over a full season, and while defense remains a glaring problem, many aspects look better.

Nothing stands out more than their power play, which is by far the best in the league over that span at 35.7 percent. Over the first 31 games, the Hawks were last at 11.6 percent.

Their stars are shining, too, and Colliton’s gamble of pairing Kane and Jonathan Toews has paid off tremendously with a combined 12 points in their first two games together.

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Kane leads the NHL in goals (14) and points (32) over the last month, Toews has 17 points in his last 13 games and Alex DeBrincat has seven goals in eight games as he tracks toward 40 for the season.

The Hawks’ questions are at the other end of the rink and have persisted even in good times for the team. They’re giving up 3.74 goals per game, with a negligible improvement over the recent month, and there’s no obvious solution.

Colliton is rotating defensemen until he finds the right six, this coming after he appeared to settle at least on Connor Murphy and Carl Dahlstrom as a lockdown duo, and remains intent on playing Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook heavy minutes.

He’s also still switching between Collin Delia and Cam Ward while the team waits for a possible Corey Crawford return.

In the Hawks’ best stretch of the season, they’ve allowed a league-worst 37.5 shots on goal, have the fourth-worst Corsi For percentage (a statistic that measures essentially what portion of the game they control the action) at 45.9 and yielded the most high-danger scoring chances at 12.2 per game.

Overcoming all of that will be extremely difficult, but at their peak, the Hawks have somehow managed to do it.