COLUMBUS -- The Chicago Blackhawks are making a habit out of building quick leads all of a sudden, and it's paying off with victories at a key time of the season.
The Hawks are not only looking to secure their playoff position in the Western Conference, but also want to hit the postseason rolling with a stretch of strong play over the remaining games on their schedule.
After Tuesday night's 5-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena, they're now only two points back of the Detroit Red Wings for fifth in the Western Conference with just eight games left to play.
"We're going good right now, but we've learned a lot this year so far," said defenseman Duncan Keith, who racked up four assists, including secondary helpers on a pair of power-play goals in the third period. "The one thing we've learned is we're not going to take anything for granted. We're playing better, but we know there's still more there that we need to get better at. We're happy about our starts lately and that's been a key in our last three games."
They'll turn right around on Wednesday night and get another chance for a fast start in the first of those eight remaining games, which just happens to be a bitter rivalry game at home against the Vancouver Canucks.
Knowing that could've easily made this game against the injury-riddled and last-place Blue Jackets a trap game. Instead it was the Blackhawks (41-25-8) who trapped Columbus with a quick three-goal deficit less than 10 minutes into the game and rolled from there.
"We were prepared tonight," said Chicago goalie Corey Crawford, who didn't get the team's first shutout of the season but did pick up his fourth straight win by making 24 saves. "You might let up sometimes against a team like that, but we came out right from the start and played hard. That's what we needed, to play hard against this team and win a game like that and not get away from our game. We've got another huge one (on Wednesday)."
Chicago got its first goal from rookie Andrew Shaw -- his third in the last two games -- just 4:12 into the game, which was followed 2:05 later by the first of two from Patrick Sharp before Brent Seabrook made it 3-0 just 8:22 into the game with a floater from the blue line that somehow got past Columbus goalie Steve Mason (22 saves).
"They got a couple lucky bounces in the first period to set us back there and the second goal wasn't good on my part," Mason said. "Other than that, they capitalized on their power plays in the third."
Mason said a long trip back from Western Canada on Monday was a physical challenge when facing a team as skilled as Chicago and bristled when a reporter asked if he'll just try to forget this game happened and move ahead.
"I don't even consider this a bad game," said Mason, who is likely the Jackets' main option after Curtis Sanford's leg injury will likely cost him the remaining nine games. "I don't know if you saw the goals out there, but aside from the second [one] there's not much you can do."
The Hawks swept the six-game season series against the Blue Jackets (23-43-7) and are now up to 90 points. The have also won four in a row and are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games -- all played without injured captain Jonathan Toews (suspected concussion).
"I think the (nine-game) losing streak that we were on after the All Star break helped us out more than hurt us," said Sharp, who was gunning for a hat trick in the third for the second time in the past three games. "You never want to lose that many in a row, but it taught us a few lessons about how to play the right way. The coaches have been preaching a certain style of play and we've bought in. It's been helping us a lot, so that's probably the main difference."
Marian Hossa (one goal and one assist) also scored for the Hawks, while Shaw added an assist on Hossa's marker for his own two-point game. It was Shaw's line, however, that once again sparked the good start.
Shaw scored by having a shot through the crease from linemate Bryan Bickell deflect off him past Mason, who wasn't particularly sharp, and that appeared to open the floodgates.
Chicago had also taken 2-0 leads early against Dallas and Washington in the previous two games and cruised to wins in those games, as well -- with the third line centered by Dave Bolland sparking those starts along with this one.
It was all too familiar for the Blue Jackets. Coming into the game, Chicago hadn't scored less than four goals in any of their previous five victories against Columbus and scored six on two occasions. In this one, they were halfway to that amount before half of the opening period expired.
Mason prevented it from becoming 4-0 before the first intermission by stopping Patrick Kane's breakaway attempt, but the tone was already set.
After a scoreless second, Sharp added his second marker of the game early in the third for his 30th of the season to pass Toews for the team lead in goals. Hossa's marker, his 29th, soon followed to make it 5-0.
From there, the biggest storylines were how many goals Chicago would score, whether the Hawks could get their first shutout, whether Hawks forward Viktor Stalberg could continue his torrid offensive success against the Jackets and whether Sharp could get the hat trick that barely evaded him in Dallas.
Crawford lost the shutout at 12:31 of the third when Rick Nash beat him for his 25th goal, while Stalberg hit the post twice in a scoreless second period and assisted on Sharp's first tally to give him 10 points (8 goals and 2 assists) against Columbus this year.
Sharp's bid for the hat trick started after he blasted a one-timer past Mason from the slot just 37 seconds into the third to make it 4-0 Chicago, but once again he couldn't get the elusive third one -- despite a late mini break on Mason in the waning seconds.
"It was nice of Joel to kind of throw me out there and I got a lucky bounce and he made a great save," Sharp said. "I thought I had some good speed and was able to get it in the open side. He just made a great save. That's not really important. What's important is we got the win and we've got a huge game (Wednesday) at home."
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