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Coyotes Blackhawks Hockey

Blackhawks left wing Brendan Perlini celebrates after scoring against the Coyotes in the third period of Monday night's NHL game in Chicago. Perlini scored a hat trick in the Blackhawks' 7-1 romp.

If you're looking at this Blackhawks team and not willing to get suckered again into believing in it, that doesn't make you a bad fan.

It makes you a wise one.

If you're looking at the Hawks and going down the rabbit hole of breaking down their remaining opponents, as well as whom their fellow wild-card contenders play, and trying to decipher what they need to do to sneak into the playoffs, that doesn't make you crazy.

It makes you a fan.

There are no wrong ways to approach the final 13 games of what has been a baffling season. The Hawks have appeared finished several times only to bounce back with timely victories, including Monday night's 7-1 thumping of the Coyotes that pulled them within five points of the final Western Conference wild-card spot.

It was just nine days earlier that the Hawks looked terrible in a 6-3 loss to the Kings. They were playing like a team that exhausted a ton of energy to get back into the playoff race and had little left to give. That game seemed to mark the end of a nice comeback story.

Now the Hawks are riding a three-game winning streak with back-to-back victories against wild-card rivals, and hope has been revived. It was almost shocking to see how thoroughly the Hawks dominated the Coyotes, who have a significantly better chance of making the playoffs but looked like they were playing out the string.

"The game was over pretty early," Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. "At that point, you're just trying to keep the habits reasonable and close out the game and prepare for the next one. Probably the games that are closer to the end are the ones you look back on, but certainly we did a good job and we didn't give up a ton, even when the game was out of reach. Sometimes it's hard in those games to keep playing the right way, but for the most part we did that."

The Hawks need to continue playing at the top of their game and need the other contenders to stumble. One night isn't necessarily an indication of a broader trend, but the Wild and Avalanche lost Monday night, both by shutouts. That didn't go unnoticed in the Hawks locker room.

"We're always looking (at the standings) after the fact a little bit," Brandon Saad said. "But we know we've got to just control what we can control here and take it day by day and game by game. All you can do is keep winning and hope for the best."

The next test is a road game Wednesday against the Maple Leafs, who you might recall being part of the most entertaining game of the season back in October at the United Center. Patrick Kane tied the game at 5 with 1 minute, 24 seconds to play in regulation before Auston Matthews put the Leafs ahead again 22 seconds later and taunted the crowd by putting his hand to his ear.

With 29 seconds left, Kane again tied it and put his hand to his ear to mimic Matthews. The Leafs won 7-6 in overtime and have gone on to have a pretty good season that hasn't been without problems. They are a lock to make the playoffs, but the pressure to win their first Stanley Cup since 1967 is enormous.

The Hawks have no pressure and no expectations for how the season needs to end. A playoff appearance would be gravy and would further the belief that Colliton has the franchise headed in the right direction. If they don't make the postseason, they would get another high draft pick, albeit not high enough for those who wish the Hawks had tried to tank the season.

But let's stay in the moment and focus on, as the players say, one game at a time. Despite winning three straight and clobbering the Coyotes, it wouldn't be at all surprising if the Hawks return to form against the Leafs and play like the mediocre team they have been nearly all season. Keep in mind that, at 30-30-9, the Hawks are the definition of average.

It also wouldn't be surprising if they reprised a version of the performance against the Coyotes. After such a dominating game, it would be more of a shock if it just disappeared into thin air.

Every game from here on out is a must-win game, regardless of whom the Hawks are playing. But some wins would be bigger than others.

If the Hawks beat the Leafs, that should be enough to grab everyone's attention.

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