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Central: Blackhawks believe division title still in reach

by Dan Rosen
Even at this time of the season, most players will tell you they're not looking at the standings. Normally, it's a lie.

Duncan Keith apparently can't tell one.

"Oh yeah, I look at them, especially this year," the Chicago Blackhawks defenseman told "We're right in the thick of things and we're doing well. In years past, I didn't always look at the standings because I didn't want to see how bad we were doing. This year, we're always looking to see where we're at and what other teams are doing in our conference."

For the most part, Keith likes what he sees. The Blackhawks have been second in the Central Division and fourth in the Western Conference for the bulk of the season. They entered play Friday with 74 points, 10 behind the Detroit Red Wings.

The Blackhawks haven't given up hope of catching the Central-leading Wings and securing either a first or second seed for the playoffs.

"There is no reason why we can't think that," said Keith. "If we keep playing better we can try to catch them. That is the mentality you have to take. Obviously it's not an easy thing to do. We'd like home-ice advantage."

As it stands now, the Hawks would have it, and they have most definitely earned it over the course of the last three weeks.

Following the All-Star break, Chicago embarked on an eight-game road trip. They returned home for one game and now are back on the road for three more, completing the swing Saturday in Dallas.

They entered the weekend 8-3 since the break (7-3 on the road), earning 16 of a possible 22 points to keep a safe distance from current fifth-seed Vancouver and within somewhat realistic striking distance from the Wings and San Jose Sharks.

"We wanted to have that mentality to focus on each game that we came into and I think we did a good job with that," Keith said. "If we would have looked at it as an 18-day road trip it might have been a bit overwhelming. We're a young team, we enjoy being with one another and that also helps. That's part of our success."

More on the Hawks -- With Patrick Sharp out at least two more weeks with a lower-body injury, Troy Brouwer is trying to elevate his game to prove he's worth playing left wing on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

That's where coach Joel Quenneville had Brouwer this week and he managed an assist and five shots in Tuesday's 5-3 win against Tampa Bay and four shots while playing a season-high 19:37 in Thursday's 4-0 win at Florida.

Brouwer, who has three points in the last three games, told the Chicago Tribune earlier this week that Sharp's injury is a great opportunity for him. So far, it looks as though he's taking advantage of it.

"It's all part of the depth that we have," Keith said. "When that opportunity knocks, a guy like Troy Brouwer can step in and show what he can do."

Franzen's triumphant return -- Detroit forward Johan Franzen returned to the lineup Wednesday against Nashville after missing five games with a hand injury and promptly popped in two power-play goals while assisting on another.

"It's huge to get the Mule (Franzen) back," Nicklas Lidstrom told the Detroit Free-Press. "He's so big and he can score goals for us because he's tough to contain. He's playing in front of the net and in the offensive zone, and we really needed him back in the lineup. You could tell he wanted to get back in the lineup, and I thought he played a really solid game for us."

With Franzen back, the Wings' top-ranked power play obviously looks even better, and their top two scoring lines are looking pretty good, too. And this is without Tomas Holmstrom, who is out at least another month after having surgery to repair a sports hernia.

The top line Wednesday night had Pavel Datsyuk playing with Henrik Zetterberg and Dan Cleary. Franzen, Hossa and Filppula made up the second line. Rookie Darren Helm centered the third line with Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson on his wings. The fourth line was Kris Draper centering rookie Ville Leino and Tomas Kopecky.

Veteran Kirk Maltby was a healthy scratch, but if Holmstrom comes back healthy in time for the playoffs, another bottom-six forward likely will get bumped out. But don't expect it to be Helm.

"I'll be using him in the playoffs," Babcock told the Free-Press.

Call the cleaning crew -- During an interview on the NHL Hour with Gary Bettman on SIRIUS XM Radio Thursday afternoon, Nashville coach Barry Trotz was asked by the commissioner if he put his penalty killers through a bag skate earlier in the day after watching them give up five power-play goals the night before in Detroit.

Of course, since the Predators had a game later that night -- they lost 2-1 in overtime to St. Louis -- Trotz didn't make his team do any “Herbies," but that doesn't mean tempers weren't flaring in the visitor's dressing room at Joe Louis Arena after the game.

"They might have to repaint the dressing room in Detroit," Trotz told the commissioner. "We got a little frustrated and their execution was the difference. Hats off to them."

Playoff vibe -- How often in their nine-year history have the Blue Jackets won a game and been thoroughly disgusted with their effort?

You probably can count them on one hand, but things are different this season, which is why the Jackets weren't happy with how they held on to beat St. Louis, 4-3, Wednesday night. That's how playoff contenders normally feel.

The Jackets brought a 4-1 lead into the second intermission, but the Blues got a shorthanded goal from Alex Steen 6:54 into the third and a power-play tally from T.J. Oshie just over nine minutes later to make it interesting.

Columbus goalie Steve Mason, who made 21 saves, stopped Brad Boyes' shot with 15 seconds left to preserve the regulation victory, which lifted the Jackets to six games over .500 for the first time in team history and into sixth place in the Western Conference.

"We have the opportunity to do something special here," Michael Peca told the Columbus Dispatch after the game. "We have a group of guys that can do it, and there's an aura of confidence that wasn't there last year. But when you have an opportunity like this, with a 4-1 lead going into the third period, you've got to clamp down and be aggressive. (Failing to do that) can kill you in the playoffs."

The Jackets moved to seven games over .500 with a 4-3 shootout win in Toronto on Thursday thanks to a goal and an assist in regulation and the shootout winner from captain Rick Nash.

Making his point -- So far, that four-year contract extension is looking pretty good on Blues forward Andy McDonald.

McDonald signed the deal Feb. 9, and the next day returned to the lineup for the first time since breaking his ankle Nov. 16 and missing 36 games. He has a point in five of his six games (2-5-7) since coming back, including a goal and assist in Thursday's 2-1 overtime win at Nashville.

Normally a center, Blues coach Andy Murray has used McDonald primarily on the left wing since his return. Lately he has been playing with rookies Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie, and the trio has shown some flashes of being a superb line down the stretch.

"Me and Bergy already had some chemistry, and then it's hard to step in with Andy McDonald and not have chemistry with him," Oshie told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I hear him all over the ice. He just lets me know where he's at or he calls for the puck. It makes everything a lot easier when you know what everyone else is doing."

He said it -- Nashville GM David Poile talking about the trade deadline Thursday on the NHL Hour with Commissioner Gary Bettman: "I'm trying to not think too much about being a seller, but I admit you have to be prepared for that if the team was to lose a few games in a row. I see the parity in the League and it doesn't seem like anybody can do anything and it really feels that way right now. It doesn't feel like there are those big deals out there, but I know I'm going to eat my words. Business 101 goes out the door for most general managers come March 1, 2, 3 and 4. We have to get our fix, so to speak."

This and that -- Nashville forward Steve Sullivan netted his first two goals of the season Wednesday night. It was the first time he scored since Feb. 22, 2007, the night he suffered the back injury that would keep him out for the next 22 1/2 months. Sullivan scored again Thursday night. ... Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane seems to have caught fire again, with 5 points in the last three games. ... The Blackhawks put Patrick Sharp and Nikolai Khabibulin on injured reserve Wednesday. ... Thursday's win in Toronto was career No. 500 for Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock. ... Detroit coach Mike Babcock picked up his 200th win as Wings coach Wednesday night. ... St. Louis coach Andy Murray got his 300th career win Thursday in Nashville. ... Detroit defenseman Brad Stuart, who has missed 13 games since suffering rib and spine injuries Jan. 20, practiced Tuesday and hopes to return next week.

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