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Blackhawks have eyes on Central Division crown

Enter bye week winners of five straight, three points behind Wild

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- Statement games in February should never be confused with statement games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs but when the team that has three Stanley Cup championships in the previous seven years does some talking on the ice, notice is taken.

The Chicago Blackhawks put some irritating issues to rest in the past week, including with a 5-1 victory against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place on Saturday. It was Chicago's fifth straight win, a good place to be heading into its five-day player break.

The Blackhawks (35-17-5) have 75 points, second in the Central Division. They trail the front-running Minnesota Wild (36-12-6) by three points with three more games played.

Before arriving in Edmonton, the Blackhawks defeated the Wild 4-3 in overtime Wednesday, ending an eight-game losing streak against Minnesota. Chicago hadn't won against Minnesota in a regular-season game since Jan. 8, 2015, though it's worth remembering that the Blackhawks eliminated the Wild from the playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

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On the trip, the Blackhawks got their first victory of the season against the Winnipeg Jets -- 5-2 in Winnipeg on Friday -- a team that they were 0-4-0 against.

"They knew the importance of that game," coach Joel Quenneville said of the win against the Wild. "We stuck with it and we got a lot of energy off that win.

"Winnipeg for some reason this year owned the four games against us and we had a good response [Friday]. And earlier we got pounded here [5-0 on Nov. 21] so it was a good response all three games.

"I'm certainly happy the way we're going into the break. Everybody should enjoy the break knowing that we put a nice standard going into it."

The Blackhawks had done plenty this season to earn their comfortable standing in the Central Division. They had an 11-game point streak (9-0-2) between Oct. 22 and Nov. 13, a five-game winning streak in December and another here in February.

The six-game road trip just finished, however, began after two home losses and started with a 3-1 defeat to the San Jose Sharks.

"We lost the first game but our game's been better and ran the table the rest of the way," defenseman Brian Campbell said. "We're just trying to up our game a little more and we got some good contributions from some guys and it's different guys different nights but it's been a better team effort."

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Campbell has his eye on the Central Division standings and said that the win in Minnesota on Wednesday was important.

"This [winning streak] is big for us but now we don't play for a week so we don't get any points for a week," Campbell said. "We'd like to have won in regulation to [gain] more points on [the Wild] because we have to find a way.

"We're trying to win our division so it was obviously a big game going against the top team."

The Blackhawks are counting on their depth and experience to help them push for the Central Division title when they come back from their break.

"We're going to give it our best and do everything we can to finish as high as we can," defenseman Duncan Keith said. "It's always a different animal come playoff time. We know we have experience but it's always a different level of play once you get there. We'll try to finish as high as we can and finishing at the top is our goal."

The five-game winning streak was important mentally, Keith said.

"We knew we'd have this break to rest so we wanted to give it a push," Keith said. "We wanted to see what we could do. We know we're a good team and we still have things to improve on. Let's not get ahead of ourselves but this was a good stretch of games and it's a good feeling.

"We hadn't beaten Minnesota in a long time. And Winnipeg had our number all year. And we had come in here and lost the last game pretty soundly. There's meaning in every game but over the course of a long season you try to find those … you shouldn't have to find ways to motivate yourself but at the same time, it was easy to play against teams we haven't been very good against."

Video: CHI@EDM: Panik slams in PPG for second of game

The Blackhawks resume their schedule against the Oilers at United Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; SN, NHLN-US, WGN, NHL.TV).

They could be forgiven if they wanted to keep playing with the momentum they've gained.

Quenneville said the interruption will still be a positive.

"It's what it is," Quenneville said. "These guys [the Oilers] came off of it. We'll see them again when we come out of it. We'll see. I know our guys have played a lot of hockey and the guys that went to the All-Star Game as well, they didn't get much of a break.

"Hopefully everybody gets away and comes back refreshed and trying to recapture this feeling we have right now. Whether the reward (of the break) is down the road or immediate, I still think there are benefits for it."

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