The Blackhawks aren’t riding a three-game winning streak. They’re dragging it, pulling it, coaxing it to Winnipeg for a road game against a quality team that likely will define where this team is headed much more than victories over the Sabres, Coyotes and Panthers.
Six points out of six is never a bad thing. But the Hawks (15-11-5) know they didn’t pass the eye test this week. Eventually, they’re going to have to start playing well, not only to regain their playoff status but also to become a threat to advance if they get there.
“I think that’s the biggest thing,” said forward Brandon Saad, who had a goal and an assist in the Hawks’ 3-2 overtime victory against the Panthers on Tuesday night at the United Center. “Even though we’re winning games, we take positives from it, but we can still keep getting better, and that’s the mentality we have to have.
“We can’t sit back. We’re in no position to do that. You see where we’re at. We’re all excited about climbing up and embracing this challenge and keep getting better.”
With Corey Crawford playing at a career-high level, the Hawks always have a chance. But sooner or later they’ll need to stop leaning on Crawford and make him look like a complementary piece instead of the obvious team MVP. It remains to be seen if they can find whatever missing element it is they’re looking for.
“I think doing it consistently,” Saad said. “When we play with pace — you see it [against the Panthers], how you have the puck down low and roll four lines — we can contribute. We have a deep team, but when we play a slow game, it kind of creeps into playing down to the other team’s level. So when we keep that pace up, night in and night out for a full 60 minutes, that’s how we have success.”
That starts with the top line of Saad, Toews and intriguing rookie Alex DeBrincat, which set the tone against the Panthers and also finished it — DeBrincat feeding Saad for one goal and Saad passing to Toews for another.
“They’re capable of being a very dangerous line,” coach Joel Quenneville said, “with the rush game, the possession game, which saw a long cycle shift where they ended up scoring on it. They’ve all got speed, and they all see plays and make plays. We haven’t scored many cycle goals this year, and that’s what we need more of in our game.”
DeBrincat seems to be the X factor. With two assists against the Panthers, the 19-year-old has 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in his last 15 games. Sometimes rookies like DeBrincat take off from there, other times they hit a wall.
“He’s playing with a ton of confidence these last 10-15 games,” Toews said. “Early on a lot of people asked me about him, and I was like, it’s just a matter of time before he starts pottin’ a bunch of goals and putting up points. We all know what he can do. It’s just about him finding confidence and just relaxing with the puck at this level.
“He’s done that. So for Saad and I, I think he’s a great complement that we can find him in soft areas because he’s such a smart player playing away from the puck as well.”
NOTE: The Hawks placed defenseman Cody Franson on injured reserve, retroactive to Dec. 9, with an upper-body injury and recalled defenseman Ville Pokka from Rockford. Pokka, 23, acquired in the Nick Leddy trade in 2014, has 12 points (three goals, nine assists) and an even plus/minus rating in 26 games with the IceHogs.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.