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If the Blackhawks are going to flip that switch, now’s the time

You want a funk? You want a losing streak? You want a reason to panic? Three years ago this month, the Blackhawks lost nine straight games. Nine. They plummeted from the best record in the league to sixth place in the Western Conference in three miserable weeks, two points from being outside of the playoff picture.

This? Whatever the Hawks have been muddling through this month? This isn’t that. It only seems that way.

“That wasn’t a happy time,” Bryan Bickell recalled. “It kind of feels like we’ve lost something like that, the way we’re playing.”

These are strange times for the Hawks. Just last Wednesday, they had their most impressive first period in weeks, utterly dominating play against the Detroit Red Wings. Just last Friday, they were tied 1-1 late in the third period against a desperate Colorado Avalanche team with an unbeatable Semyon Varlamov. Just this Sunday, they seemed poised to tie up the equally desperate Boston Bruins early in the second period.

They lost in a shootout to Detroit. They melted down late and lost to Colorado. They got annihilated by Boston. Two games ago, they were riding a seven-game point streak. Now, they’ve lost five of seven — points salvaged forgotten, points squandered remembered. Perspective is everything.

But like it or not (and there’s no reason to like it), this is what the Hawks do. They take their foot off the gas, because they know they can put it in high gear when it counts. They were 7-5-7 in January and February last year, and finished one goal away from the Stanley Cup Final. They were 4-5-0 after their record start in 2013, and won the Stanley Cup.

They coast for a bit. Then they grasp a bit for the switch. Then they flip it. Then they’re off.

“It’s a dangerous way to play,” Kris Versteeg said. “We definitely do it a little too much. With the guys in the room and the belief we have, that’s why at times you can see it’s almost like a switch is flipped.”

Here are the facts: Barring an unlikely collapse by Nashville, the Hawks are not going to win the Central Division. Barring an unlikely collapse by the Hawks, they’re not going to miss the playoffs, or even fall to fourth place. It’s almost certainly going to be Blues-Hawks in the first round again, and all that’s left at stake is home-ice advantage in that series.

So what matters over these last 22 games is preparing for another playoff run, and that means addressing the real problems that face this team:

—— Patrick Sharp, the purest goal-scorer on the team, has to start scoring again. He has just two 5-on-5 goals all season. And he knows it.

“It kills you when the team loses and you’re a reason for that,” he said. “You carry that around on your shoulders every day.”

—— The Hawks’ third and fourth lines need to start chipping in, too. Marcus Kruger has one goal in 35 games. Ben Smith has none in 25 games. Andrew Shaw has none in 12 games. Bickell has two in 17 games. It can’t be all on Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa.

—— Joel Quenneville needs to stabilize the defense. With Johnny Oduya slated to miss a couple of weeks with an upper-body injury, and Trevor van Riemsdyk “real close” to returning, and the trade deadline looming next Monday, the time is now. A struggling Michal Rozsival will be leaned on even more heavily now, and he has to prove he can handle it without being a detriment to the team. Quenneville continued to downplay the idea that a trade could be on the horizon, though the Hawks have been sniffing around some depth defensemen, such as Carolina’s Andrej Sekera.

He also said Antti Raanta’s demotion to Rockford on Sunday was about performance and getting him some playing time (curious, considering Raanta has hardly played, and the IceHogs don’t play until Friday, with Scott Darling starting Tuesday against Florida) and not about freeing up salary-cap space for a possible trade.

—— And above all else, the Hawks need to stop coasting off and on. The winter doldrums are over. It’s time for the home stretch.

The Hawks have been here before. And they’ve shown flashes of their old selves in the midst of all the middling play. But that doesn’t invalidate the genuine concerns that face this team. The window to win a third Stanley Cup is open right now, and it might not be next year as the cap crunch looms. Monday’s practice, full of battle drills and intense work, was a nice start. The key is bringing that effort when it counts, and then doing it for a full 60 minutes.

So no, the Hawks don’t have a panic button. It’s not in their nature, nor should it be given all they’ve accomplished, and all the talent on the roster. But Quenneville did say he has a “get-attention button.”

And?

“I’ve got it pushed,” he said.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus