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After five-win week, Hawks can rest happy

3/6/2011

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Finally, a moment to breathe.

The Chicago Blackhawks completed five games in one week and came out of it with flying colors. Winners of eight in a row, they are the talk of the NHL once again.

The also-hot San Jose Sharks saw their eight-game streak snapped on Saturday with a loss to the Dallas Stars, so it’s up to the Hawks to continue on the league’s second-best run this season. Only one team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, has won more than eight in a row this year. The Penguins won 12 straight during November and December.

It’s hard to pinpoint which of the Hawks’ eight wins ranks the best, but Saturday’s dismantling of the Maple Leafs, 5-3, in hockey-crazed Toronto, is near the top.

Going into that game, Toronto, in its own way, was as hot as the Hawks -- if not more so. The Leafs had lost just two games in regulation since the end of January. A playoff push was the talk of the town. That came to an abrupt halt on Saturday.

“We were quick to find out why they’re Stanley Cup champions,” Leafs forward Tim Brent said. “They capitalized on every mistake we made.”

The Hawks’ opportunistic nature is the overriding reason for their 5-on-5 success during the streak. On Friday, Jonathan Toews picked the pocket of a slow moving defenseman to lead to the Hawks’ first goal against Carolina. On Saturday, Marian Hossa jumped into a passing lane for a steal and score just seconds into the contest. Countless other times, the Hawks have pounced on mistakes and finished at the other end.

“We’re having fun scoring,” said the red-hot Toews, who had seven goals last week.

It does look fun, doesn’t it?

Pretty passing plays, 2-on-1 breaks, offensive zone steals. The Hawks are getting it done in many different ways. Whereas their offense relied on the power play for most of the season, now the goals are happening with such variety that it gives hope for a long playoff run.

Lineup change: It’s been well-documented that the Hawks felt some urgency when they languished in 10th or 11th place in the conference just a couple of weeks ago. But what’s been the strategic move by coach Joel Quenneville that ignited his team?

It’s not hard to look at some player game logs and realize where the big change came. The Hawks’ eight-game winning streak coincides with Ryan Johnson's return to the lineup after missing three games with an injury. It’s also about the time he found his game after signing with the Hawks midseason. He’s been more then steady, which allowed Quenneville to move Patrick Sharp back to wing.

That move ignited the top line.

“I like the four centermen,” Quenneville said on Saturday. “You’re comfortable with the lines right now. RJ’s return has really given us some speed, some good experience, and he’s been great in the faceoff circle. He’s been good in the leadership department as well. Everyone at center, that’s their natural position and that helps.”

The Hawks don’t feel they’ve reached their peak, which is a scary thought for the remaining teams on the schedule. Just ask the previous eight opponents, including the Maple Leafs.