ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — After enduring some rough patches, the Chicago Blackhawks have finally begun to play as if they’re not ready to relinquish their title.
Jonathan Toews, naturally, is leading the charge.
Toews and Patrick Sharp each scored in the second period, and the defending champion Blackhawks stretched their winning streak to a season-high five games with a 4-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Monday night.
“We don’t even feel like we’re on a hot streak right now,” Toews insisted. “We’re taking it one game at a time, and every time we come up with two points — whether it’s a shootout win or an even-strength win by a couple goals. It doesn’t matter how we get it.”
Tomas Kopecky also scored in the second, Marian Hossa sealed the game with a short-handed goal with 1:52 left, and the surging Blackhawks crept a little bit closer to last year’s Stanley Cup form.
The captain, Toews, had two assists and has 23 points in his last 14 games, including four goals in his last six.
“He’s been great over this stretch of games,” coach Joel Quenneville. “You can look back over a month or so that he’s been a force. He’s been dominating in all aspects and areas of the game and seems to have the puck a lot.”
That classic cliche about every game counting has grown this season from mostly coach-speak to unquestionable reality in the West, a normally competitive conference that now has a near-ridiculous amount of playoff contenders tightly packed together in a prime example of the NHL’s post-lockout parity.
Seven teams started the day within three points of each other, from fifth through 11th place. The Wild paid for a flat first two periods and lost to one of their primary competitors, falling to the final playoff spot with 72 points while the Blackhawks barged into sixth place with 74 points.
“It looked like we were giving them too much respect,” said Martin Havlat, who scored early in the third period against his old team, his 20th this season. “They were skating, and we were watching.”
Hossa scored for the fourth straight game and Sharp got his 33rd goal of the season, tied for second-most in the NHL.
“This definitely helps for the confidence,” Hossa said. “I just try to stay positive and keep working and good things happen.”
Brent Burns brought the Wild within one with 4:12 left after digging for his own rebound. His backhand flip between his skates gave him 16 goals, a career high and the franchise record for defensemen.
The Wild couldn’t keep up with the Sharp-Toews-Patrick Kane line, even with the league’s hits leader Cal Clutterbuck going against them several times. Then again, not many teams can.
“I think we have the playmaking ability,” Wild coach Todd Richards said. “For whatever reason we didn’t have the energy through two periods. You’ve got to give them credit, too. They do make things difficult on you. Bad bounces, if they get the puck, they make you work to get it back.”
Penalty killing has been a problem for the Blackhawks this season, but they denied the Wild on three power plays, none more critical than when Kopecky then took a delay-of-game penalty with 3:22 left. The Wild peppered goalie Corey Crawford — starting for the eighth straight game — during a mad scramble toward the end of it, but the puck escaped and Hossa found himself on a 2-on-1 rush for the clincher.
The Blackhawks flexed their offensive muscle right after the first intermission. Only 44 seconds into the second period, Toews was behind the net and found Sharp cutting in from the right circle untouched for an easy one-timer.
Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, second in the league in save percentage after giving up 13 goals over his previous nine starts, appeared to have Brian Campbell’s slap shot covered a few minutes later. But Viktor Stalberg poked the puck loose and Kopecky backhanded it in for a 2-0 lead.
Toews then took a pass from Patrick Kane on an extra-wide 2-on-1 rush and knocked it in, making Backstrom’s water bottle jump on top of the net.
“They’ve got a lot of skill up front, and they showed that they can play hockey,” Burns said. “It’s nothing new.”
NOTES: Blackhawks D Nick Leddy played at Xcel Energy Center for the first time since winning a state championship with Eden Prairie High School two years ago. He was a first-round draft pick by the Wild, then was traded last season for Cam Barker, who was scratched again with an upper-body injury.
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