Hot-and-cold reality: Inconsistency defining Blackhawks as average

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New Jersey Devils center Pavel Zacha scored on this play to give the Devils a 3-0 lead over the Blackhawks in the first period Saturday night at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. The Devils won, 4-1. (Julio Cortez/AP)

The Blackhawks vowed to respond after an ugly loss to the Devils in November at the United Center — in which they blew a 4-1 lead in a 7-5 defeat — and they did.

They won four of their next five games (4-0-1), losing only to the Lightning in overtime, but then they lost their next five (0-3-2). They won their next five after that and now have lost back-to-back games — 4-0 to the Stars on Friday and 4-1 to the Devils on Saturday.

So is this what the Hawks are? A .500 team still talented enough to have hot streaks but flawed enough and old enough to have cold streaks, too?

‘‘Not at all,’’ captain Jonathan Toews said when that possibility was raised after the game Saturday. ‘‘I think we played some great hockey before the last couple of games. Ran into two good teams that play well at home.

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‘‘We can be better defensively early in games and not get behind the eight ball. You can hang in those games, and you know what it comes down to. I think you’ve got to hang on to your confidence. You’ve gotta keep that momentum. You’ve gotta play well early. We didn’t do those things the last couple of games.’’

The Hawks might or might not be Stanley Cup contenders. But as these hot-and-cold streaks continue, this much seems painfully true: After years of being conditioned to think like the hunted, they have to accept the reality that they are now the hunter. They have to go in with the mindset of the Hawks teams that were chasing the Cup instead of the teams that were defending it.

That might be impossible. The Hawks know they have to avoid bad starts, such as the ones they had against the Stars and Devils, but they have to learn how to do it again.

‘‘You’ve just gotta learn from games like this,’’ Toews said. ‘‘You have to grow as a team. I think that’s what experience is. The next time around, kind of foreseeing what might happen, especially when you’re on the road against a team that can skate, that can move the puck like [the Devils] do. You’ve gotta see that coming. It’s up to us as a group to be better prepared for the first [period] than we were.’’

After 35 games, the Hawks are 17-13-5 and have 39 points. That’s their lowest total at this point of the season since 2010-11, when they were racked by salary-cap losses after winning the Stanley Cup and also had 39 points (18-14-3). That team backed into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

‘‘It’s easy to look at the uphill battle we have ahead of us,’’ Toews said. ‘‘But we just have to take it one game at a time. We’ll enjoy the [four] days off that we have [and] use it as mental rest and make sure that we’re ready to play better road hockey when we come back after Christmas break.’’

Once upon a time, it was that easy. Not anymore.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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