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Door opens for Blackhawks, but Stars slam it shut

DALLAS — With a mere three weeks left in the regular season, it’s tempting — darn near irresistible, really — to start mapping out scenarios, first-round matchups and paths to the Stanley Cup Final. Counting games in hand and available points, and breaking down future schedules and pending showdowns is all part of the home stretch.

Are the Blackhawks better off facing Nashville instead of St. Louis? Is a first-place finish a potential trap, with red-hot Minnesota, pesky Winnipeg, or defending champion Los Angeles possibly waiting? Could a tantalizing rivalry-rekindling Vancouver showdown happen?

It’s fun to try to figure it all out. Fun, but futile.

“The only thing that looked like it was set in stone last year was that we were going to play Colorado, and it never happened,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville. “We’ll see how it plays out this year and we can’t be satisfied with anything.”

Sure enough, Saturday was one of those wild March days. It began with the St. Louis Blues losing to the Minnesota Wild, opening the door for the Hawks — who began a run of four straight out-of-the-playoffs opponents with Dallas — to move within two points of first place in the Central Division with a game in hand.

Then the Hawks, 6-0-1 in their last seven and on a four-game win streak, went out and had their worst game in weeks, falling 4-0 to the Stars as Kari Lehtonen made 33 saves. Home-stretch hockey. Go figure.

The Hawks remain four points behind St. Louis with a game in hand, and four points behind Nashville with two games in hand.

Niklas Hjalmarsson said he didn’t even know the Blues had lost hours earlier, and said the poor effort on Saturday was one the Hawks could quickly put behind them.

“I don’t think we’ve had too many of these games this year,” Hjalmarsson said. “What I can remember, the Minnesota game in Minnesota (a 3-0 loss on Feb. 3) was probably similar to this one, but I think we can count those kind of games on one hand for us this season so far. I think it’s like that for every team. You have at least four or five games like that in an 82-game season. That was just one of those and we’ve just got to move on.”

There weren’t any positives to take from this one, anyway. Two early power plays went nowhere, and the Stars took a 2-0 lead on goals by Patrick Eaves and Tyler Seguin, the latter on a power play. Shawn Horcoff added a power-play goal in the third, and Jason Spezza stole an ill-advised Michal Rozsival pass three minutes later to make it 4-0.

In between, the Hawks sleepwalked through most of the second period before a late, fruitless flurry. Marian Hossa was denied on a breakaway, and Patrick Sharp’s chip went just wide shortly after that. Brandon Saad had a penalty shot in the third period when it was 3-0, but Lehtonen poke-checked it away.

“Just one of those games where you could say [there was] not one line you liked, and didn’t like the way the ‘D’ played, either,” Quenneville said. “Crow gave us a chance. Other than that, it was one of those games. Not very good.”

It was a bad stumble in the race to the top of the Central Division. The question now becomes can the Hawks get back up and run over lowly Carolina on Monday? This time of year, you never know.

NOTES: The Hawks agreed to terms on a three-year, entry-level contract with Notre Dame sophomore and Bartlett native Vincent Hinostroza, a sixth-round draft pick in 2012. The 5-9 Hinostroza had 11 goals and 33 assists in 42 games with the Fighting Irish this season. … Kimmo Timonen played in his 1,100th career game.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus