The Blackhawks filtered out of the Johnny's IceHouse West locker room on Wednesday. Some of the veterans couldn't gotten one more day off but, after three days off for some, Wednesday was back to work.
"I think they know why: you don't want to be too stiff the next day," Marian Hossa said. "But it was nice to take a break because you know it's going to be game after game after game [now]. There won't be much of a break."
The mini-vacation, if you could call it that, is over. Starting with Thursday night's game against the Anaheim Ducks, the Blackhawks will play 17 games over the final 31 days of their regular season. Just about every hockey player would rather play than practice, and the Blackhawks are no different. They also thrive off that schedule. Factor that in with a just-about fully healthy lineup, something that's been rare this season, and the Blackhawks are looking to finish as strong as possible.
The Blackhawks enter Thursday night's game one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the Western Conference lead. Even with a few injuries prior to the break they found ways to win. Now with nearly everyone back – including Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, both of whom are expected to play Thursday – the Blackhawks can use these last 17 games as their personal playoff primer.
"We have some different looks again," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We can always mix pairs on the back end. We have the four lines that have been the best part of our game that consistency has helped us in making other teams defend, generating an attack, chances and drawing penalties. That's been the difference in our team game. We're probably looking to make some moves up front to see what's best for matchups and line combinations as we're going along. It's not like we're going to be experimenting but at least there'll be some things we'll be sorting out."
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The Blackhawks resume play with defensive depth that rivals the 2015 team. Oduya feels ready to go after the few extra days and returning to the United Center as a Blackhawk again – "I've been here with a different team but of course it'll be special. The fans are on your side instead of, not against you, but on the other side," he said. It's a different mix than in 2015 overall – the Blackhawks' younger players have been a big boost to this year's team. But Oduya said, regardless of lineup, everyone knows what's expected this time of year.
"I've seen it mostly from the outside but watching some of the games, I think it's as good as any team. That said, we know there's a long road," Oduya said. "We want to play good hockey games. That's what you have in your mind."
The Blackhawks are in the regular-season home stretch. They're healthy again and have the Wild in their sights. For a team that started the last postseason on the road, playing their best hockey and taking the division are top priorities.
"It's something to shoot for right now. It's something we set out to do every year is try to win the division. It's a tough one to win but we have a chance to do that," Patrick Kane said. "We have 17 games left here. We might as well try and do it."