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Roster decisions, special teams will play huge role down stretch

If Marian Hossa’s iron-denting shot had been a quarter of an inch to the right in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to St. Louis, maybe the Blackhawks are in first place right now. Maybe in a three-way tie with the Blues and Nashville Predators, even.

Or if Jake Allen hadn’t gotten the edge of his elbow on a Brandon Saad shot. Or if Bryan Bickell had converted on a 2-on-0. Or if Andrew Shaw had won a defensive-zone draw that led directly to a Blues power play goal.

That’s how fine a line these three teams are walking over this final week of the season.

Every shot, every penalty, every shift, every roster decision can make a huge impact on the playoff seedings at this point. Here are three seemingly minor things that might make a major difference down the stretch.

1. Blue-line balance
Duncan Keith played nearly 28 minutes on Sunday night. Johnny Oduya played nearly 10 minutes in the first period alone. They’d better get used to it. In both the short and long terms, the Hawks’ big four of Keith, Brent Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Oduya will have to shoulder the load. Kimmo Timonen is officially day-to-day with an upper-body injury (courtesy a Ryan Reaves hit) that knocked him out of Sunday’s game in the first period. Timonen was playing limited minutes already, and now David Rundblad — a healthy scratch in 10 of the last 13 games — is the only other NHL-ready defenseman on the roster.

Trevor van Riemsdyk’s comeback attempt was derailed by wrist surgery. Michael Paliotta isn’t a viable option, with zero games under his belt. And Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck have been traded. Kyle Cumiskey could be an emergency call-up if necessary, but Quenneville appears ready to roll with the seven guys (including Timonen) that he’s got. Asked if he was comfortable with the depth in the wake of Timonen’s injury, he said, “We’re fine.”

Michal Rozsival, meanwhile, has struggled this season. After his ghastly giveaway led directly to a Vancouver goal last Thursday, Quenneville doubled down on his commitment to the veteran Sunday morning. Rozsival then went out and took a boarding penalty that led to one Blues goal, and failed to check Olli Jokinen on the other one.

The prudent thing to do is to pair Keith and Seabrook again, and just have the top two duos log heavy minutes, while shielding the bottom pair with offensive-zone starts, even if it means putting Rundblad on his off side if Timonen misses a game or two. The stakes are too high, and guys like Keith won’t shy away from the minutes.

“I like to be out there, and the coaches will decide that sort of thing,” Keith said. “Right now we’re just focused as players on just doing everything we can to be at our best here come playoffs.”

2. College enrollment
The Hawks have painted themselves into a corner in regards to college signings Kyle Baun and Paliotta. They signed with the Hawks with the understanding that they’d get to play at least one game before the end of the regular season (like Drew LeBlanc and Matt Carey before them), and Quenneville has said he’ll get them in at some point. But when? Quenneville opted not to play them against lowly Buffalo on Friday, and now he’ll have to play them either in monster showdowns against Minnesota or St. Louis, or the season-finale at Colorado, which could have home-ice advantage or more on the line.

Not playing them isn’t an option. Even if an NHL appearance this season isn’t explicitly laid out in their contracts, if the Hawks didn’t play them, it would send a terrible message to future college kids considering signing in Chicago. So two college kids will be making their NHL debuts at some point during this make-or-break week. Gulp.

3. Nothing special
That the Hawks are 3-for-25 on the power play in their last 11 games isn’t terribly surprising. For whatever reason, it hasn’t been their strong suit in years. More alarming is the suddenly pedestrian penalty kill, which has allowed seven goals on the last 21 opposing power plays. Once the league’s top PK unit, the Hawks are now seventh at 84.2 percent.

The Hawks have proven you don’t need a great power play to succeed, but that was thanks to a stellar penalty-kill. At least one of the units has to be working. And soon.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus