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Hawks take first place in West with 6-5 win over Blues

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO - With the team's traveling "championship belt" slung over his shoulder for being the first star, Blackhawks center Kris Versteeg shook his head and smiled.

He'd just been asked about what happened to the Hawks in a wild finish to the third period of a game that seemed like an easy win after two periods.

Leading St. Louis by four goals heading midway through the second period at the United Center on Wednesday night, it looked like Chicago would waltz to its fifth straight win and franchise-record 109th point, and vault into first place in the Western Conference.

The Blues had other ideas, scoring once in the second period and three times in the third, nearly catching the Hawks sleepwalking with a big lead before Chicago escaped with a 6-5 win.

"It made for an exciting game, but definitely not the way we want to finish out," said Versteeg, who had a goal, three assists and a plus-3 in 17:06 of ice time. "They came up on us there at the end, and that's not the way we want to finish."

Brad Boyes' penalty-shot goal with 31 seconds left to play brought St. Louis within one goal and the resulting power play after Dustin Byfuglien's major slashing penalty forced Hawks goalie Antti Niemi to turn away a couple of open shots before time finally ran out.

How scary did it get for the Hawks?

"It was pretty scary, to be honest with you," said Niklas Hjalmarsson. "They almost tied the game, but we just beared down and got two points. That's what counts."

Chicago improved to 15-1-3 in the second half of back-to-back games this season, which is such an impressive statistic that Hawks coach Joel Quenneville used it prominently in his post-game talk with the team.

"We were trying to make ourselves feel better after that game, so we brought up that stat," he said, drawing some laughs from reporters. "It is pretty amazing that on back-to-back nights we only lose one game in regulation over the course of 19 (games). It's a good reflection of your team."

Much better than the reflection they were staring at after building a huge lead and nearly coughing it up at the end. After falling behind 1-0 early in the first on a goal by David Perron, the Hawks responded with six straight goals to close out the first period and open the scoring in the second.

They got goals from Duncan Keith, Ben Eager, Bickell and Versteeg in the first and added one each by Andrew Ladd and Jordan Hendry in the second.

"If you're not mentally engaged in a hockey game against a team like the Blackhawks, especially early, you're going to get in trouble," said Blues coach Davis Payne, whose team was eliminated from the playoff race on Tuesday. "We weren't mentally sharp. We battled back in the third period, but it was too little, too late."

Roman Polak beat Niemi with 4:08 left in the second to make it 6-2 and start the comeback. Then the craziness really got started. Brad Winchester scored just 3:43 into the third, T.J. Oshie got his 18th of the season almost exactly 10 minutes later -- and then came Boyes' late penalty shot.

"In the first 40 minutes we were in pretty good shape, and then we took our foot off the gas," Quenneville said. "We almost gave it away."

If they had, they also would have given away the advantage they hold over San Jose in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Both teams have 109 points, but Chicago has two more wins as both teams enter the final two games of the season.

"When we play our game we're pretty dangerous," Versteeg said. "We got a little comfortable and that's not the way we want to be in the third. I think maybe we had a little fatigue in there from the game (on Tuesday)."

Marian Hossa, who had recently been promoted to the first line to great success, got hit hard late in the first and didn't return after skating one shift in the second period. However, Quenneville categorized the injury as "nothing major."

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