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Middling start gives Blackhawks unusual urgency in regular season

In his first two months on the job, Alex DeBrincat has learned quickly that every game counts in the NHL, even though the regular season can sometimes feel like an interminable slog, with the promise of playoff excitement still several months away.

“Every point is huge, and there are so many teams that are so close in the standings,” DeBrincat said. “You win one game and you jump up a few spots. I mean, playoff time’s a lot more important, but every game counts now.”

Of course, a rookie is going to think that. He has to. But the fact is, for most of the past handful of seasons, the Blackhawks haven’t exactly put too high of a premium on the regular season. A playoff spot has been a virtual guarantee, and seeding was never too much of a concern. The regular season at times felt like mere obligation, a necessary evil to get to the games that really mattered.

It’s not that the Hawks didn’t try in the regular season — you don’t win 46-50 games every year without caring — but there were no “big games” in November. Not when you were playing for the Stanley Cup just five months earlier.

Artem Anisimov celebrates his third goal Wednesday night with Nick Schmaltz. (AP Photo)

But two first-round exits followed by a middling start have changed things considerably. Last Saturday’s come-from-behind overtime win at Carolina felt like a desperately-needed victory. Sunday’s come-from-ahead collapse against the Devils felt like a huge squandered opportunity. And to a man, Wednesday’s 6-3 win over the red-hot Rangers felt very important.

Suddenly, the regular season really matters.

“We were a little bit behind the 8-ball, where these games mean a little bit more at this point in our season,” Patrick Kane said. “Could be a good thing, too. Now it’s almost like every game is so important, you’re playing to win every game. It’s almost like you’re playing playoff hockey right away. It’s good to kind of get into that mode and really play like we’re trying to win the games, because we know how important these points are right now.”

Even with wins in two of their last three, the Hawks were just outside the playoff picture Friday. In the Central Division, the last-place Avalanche and Stars are just one point back, and the first-place Blues are nine points ahead. The standings have been topsy-turvy all season — other expected contenders, such as Anaheim, Minnesota and Edmonton, are trailing even the Hawks. But it’s a well-worn axiom in hockey that the playoff picture is largely set by Thanksgiving.

As a result, Brent Seabrook said there’s “absolutely” more weight to the regular season this season.

“We have to start rolling here, and putting ourselves in a good position,” he said. “The last thing we want to be doing is battling for the last two or three games of the season to make the playoffs. What we do now in the middle of the season sets yourself up for the later parts.”

The good news is the Hawks seemed to have turned a corner, particularly on offense. After scoring three or fewer goals 13 times in an excruciating 14-game stretch, the Hawks have scored 15 goals in their last three games. And after melting down against the Devils, the Hawks had one of their better defensive efforts against the Rangers.

The offensive explosion — led by DeBrincat, Artem Anisimov and Nick Schmaltz — has had a noticeable impact on the mood of the room, releasing the pressure that had been building up for weeks.

“I think we’re playing pretty well right now,” Kane said. “It’s important sometimes, when things aren’t going well, to just stay on the right track and [know that] things are eventually going to break, especially with the group we have in here. It’s good to see some goals going into the net. Obviously some guys had some big nights, which is good. Hopefully it’ll give them some confidence and get us going, get us moving in the right direction.”

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Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com