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Ex-Blackhawks send former teammates stumbling into break

There are 47 games left in the regular season, so it’s just idle speculation at this point, but as the standings now stand, the Blackhawks would draw the surprising Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’d be just fine by former Hawks winger Michael Frolik, who still keeps tabs on his old buddies whenever they’re on TV.

“It’s [getting] a little bit ahead, but I wouldn’t mind it, for sure,” Frolik said. “It’ll be definitely fun to play against them in the first round, and I would definitely be happy for it.”

The Hawks? Maybe not so much.

Winnipeg chased Corey Crawford in the first period and thumped the listless Hawks 5-1 on Tuesday night at the United Center. The Jets have beaten the Hawks both times they’ve played them this season — both in Chicago, no less. Mathieu Perreault scored twice for Winnipeg, and former Hawks Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Frolik combined for four assists.

It was a rare dud by the Hawks, who were 11-1-1 in their last 13 games, hadn’t lost a game by more than a goal since Nov. 23 in Vancouver, and had won eight straight home games dating back to early November. 

“It was one game that’ll stick out,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “All year long, I think we’ve been in every hockey game, except for tonight.”

With the shocking death of assistant equipment manager Clint Reif on Sunday, and a three-day Christmas break looming, perhaps a flat effort was to be expected. The Hawks channeled their emotion into a rousing 4-0 win over Toronto on Sunday night, but were sluggish from the start in this one.

“It’s been an emotional few days, and you don’t want to blame it on that, but being flat tonight was the biggest problem,” said Kris Versteeg, who added it was tough to duplicate Sunday’s emotional effort. “You want to, and you want to be professional. But it’s pretty tough.” 

The Jets — now 18-10-7 and comfortably ahead of Minnesota for fourth place in the difficult Central Division — had plenty to do with the Hawks’ stumbles in this one, too. They disrupted the Hawks’ passes, they beat the Hawks to loose pucks, and they outworked the Hawks in front of the net.

Winnipeg has yet to make the playoffs in their current incarnation since moving from Atlanta, but is making a run at it. 

“Before the season started, I think we were an underdog team,” Frolik said. “Now we’re trying to build something here.”

It was the first time Crawford was pulled for ineffectiveness since Nov. 19, 2013 in Colorado — Antti Raanta’s NHL debut. But he didn’t get much help. Johnny Oduya screened him on the first goal by Perreault, and deflected the second goal by Bryan Little. Michal Rozsival lost his man on the third goal by Anthony Peluso. He was pulled for a spark as much as anything, but aside from Marian Hossa’s breakaway goal midway through the second period, the Hawks didn’t find one.

Now, after a stirring stretch of success followed by a devastating off-ice loss, they have three days to regroup before starting up again Saturday in Colorado.

“We need it,” Duncan Keith said.

RICHARDS NEARS RETURN: Brad Richards returned to the ice for Tuesday’s morning skate, but missed his second straight game with an upper-body injury. With the three-day break looming, and the Hawks rolling of late, they took a more conservative approach to his return. Richards hopes to return Saturday in Denver against the Avalanche

“You always want to play, but [the] long-term picture is not tonight’s game,” Richards said. “The second half’s going to be busy. When we get back from this break, you’re refreshed. I fully plan on being ready to go.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus