Central Division race feeling like a mini playoffs


Central Division race feeling like a mini playoffs

The Central Division is a little crowded at the top, the chase for first getting as interesting as many figured it would. It’s tight. It’s intense.

It’s fantastic.

“I think it’s great for the league,” Marian Hossa said on Tuesday. “Obviously we would like to have a lead even more. But it’s a competitive game and still lots of games left and we try to finish first.”

The Blackhawks, who have 15 games remaining in their regular season, face tough tests against their closest divisional competitors this week: the St. Louis Blues tonight and the Dallas Stars on Friday. The Stars, following their 4-3 overtime loss to Montreal, moved into first in the Central with 88 points. The Blackhawks are second with 87 points and the Blues are in third with 85 points.

It’s a cliché, certainly, but consider this stretch run the postseason before the postseason.

“We always say we don’t want to be making Game 82 life and death to get in, but if we’re fighting for first place, we still like to get first place. It keeps our attention in the right place,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s a very meaningful road trip, two important games against two important teams as far as where we’re sitting. When we get down to a short number of games, maybe it’s clearer then, but we’ll see.”

[MORE: Marian Hossa out Wednesday against Blues]

Meanwhile, the Blues have weathered plenty of injuries this season. They’re still without forward Alexander Steen and goaltender Brian Elliott. Yet here the Blues are, breathing down the Blackhawks’ necks. Considering the history between the two teams, a fight for first place only intensifies the rivalry.

“We're going to play it like it’s any other game, but we know what’s on the line,” David Backes told the St. Louis media on Tuesday. “And there’s no love lost and there's no needed incentive to get up for the games against Chicago.”

Speaking of injuries, the Blackhawks will be without Hossa (lower body) at least one more game. There was a chance Hossa would be back against the Blues tonight but the right wing said he needs a little bit more time to be 100 percent.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty riding on this last bunch of games. The division race is tight. There’s no better way to prep for the postseason than with a tough stretch heading into it.

“It’s going to be important for us to come out hard tonight,” Andrew Shaw said. “We have some big games coming up against central division teams. It’s a playoff mentality in getting ourselves ready.”

How Blackhawks plan to handle Corey Crawford's workload

How Blackhawks plan to handle Corey Crawford's workload

Corey Crawford is back and it didn't look like he skipped much of a beat. The Blackhawks were handed their first regulation loss of the season to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, but the 33-year-old netminder stopped 27 of 30 shots (.900 save percentage) in his season debut and made several timely saves to keep his team in it.

In the larger picture, it was a win based on how well Crawford looked between the pipes.

"Yeah, I think it is," coach Joel Quenneville said after practice on Friday. "It's one of things we were wondering, how he would handle post-game and how he came in today. Very encouraging signs. He felt good in all aspects of what he went through and dealt with, and practiced well today too, so that was good."

The first one is in the books.

But what's the plan going forward? Will Crawford be on a "pitch count" or will they treat him like they have in past seasons when he was healthy?

In the past, Crawford has generally started somewhere in between 55-58 games per season. Part of that has been because of injuries. Another part is the Blackhawks have had reliable backups, which allowed them to give Crawford an extra night off here and there to keep him fresh.

It's not unreasonable, though, to think Crawford could flirt with 50 starts, considering he missed only five games to start the season. And they can still accomplish that by playing it safe.

The Blackhawks have 13 more back-to-backs this season, which gives them the opportunity to start Cam Ward at some point in each of them. That leaves room for another 15 or so starts to sprinkle in for Ward that could serve as rest days for Crawford and still being on track to start around 50.

Obviously, the Blackhawks want to be careful with how much they ask of Crawford because concussions are tricky to deal with and every player responds differently to it.

His return comes at a time where the Blackhawks are slated to play seven games in 11 days after playing just two in the previous 10. Thursday marked the start of that stretch.

"He’ll tell us how he feels and we’ll go from there and make those decisions," Quenneville said.

The Blackhawks have been on record saying they prefer not to carry three goaltenders. But in this case it makes sense. At least in the short term.

Quenneville said Friday that the Blackhawks will reevaluate the situation at the end of the weekend following the beginning of a busy stretch where they'll play three games in four days.

"Yeah, that’s the mindset," he said. "Let’s see how we handle these three in four and then we’ll address it."

Crawford is expected to start on Saturday in Columbus, making it his second start in three days. That's when they'll get a better sense of how he's handling things.

If it were up to him, Crawford said he feels he's prepared for it.

"Yeah, sure," Crawford said. "Why not? I've been working hard with [strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman]. He's got me where I need to be, so I'm in shape right now. Why not?"

Hawks Talk Podcast: Thoughts on Corey Crawford's season debut


Hawks Talk Podcast: Thoughts on Corey Crawford's season debut

In the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Jamal Mayers and Charlie Roumeliotis recap Corey Crawford’s season debut after missing nearly 10 months with a concussion.

Mayers talks about the Kitty system that Niklas Hjalmarsson and Vinnie Hinostroza probably dealt with in their returns to Chicago.

The guys also discuss what’s next for Crawford, the upcoming matchup against Artemi Panarin and the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Blackhawks’ biggest areas for improvement.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below, and be sure to subscribe, rate us and write a review!