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Red Wings Blackhawks Hockey

Blackhawks center Dominik Kahun (24) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal in the first period of Sunday's game against the Red Wings in Chicago. Kahun finished with two goals and an assist in the Hawks' 5-2 win, their seventh straight.

CHICAGO — To those Blackhawks fans who wondered how a team with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews could be as awful as it appeared in the first half of this season, the answer is this: Obviously, it can't.

While these Hawks are not as dreadful as they seemed, whether they're actually good remains an open question.

It's understandable Chicagoans, who appear to have rediscovered hockey, are eager to hope for the best and see it in a winning streak now extended to seven games. Be careful.

With the Bears' abrupt playoff ouster, the Bulls' tire fire of a season and baseball's opening day more than six weeks away, the desire to grab at any ray of good news is natural.

The latest victory, Sunday's 5-2 defeat of the Red Wings before a season-high crowd of 21,941 fans at the United Center, no doubt has helped feed the fervor.

The streak has lifted both spirits and expectations dissipated by a horrendous 16-24-9 start that cost beloved and respected coach Joel Quenneville his job and successor Jeremy Colliton his honeymoon.

Improbable as it seemed a month ago, the Hawks find themselves on the periphery of a wild-card chase. Yet Colliton was not falsely modest Sunday in saying he wasn't satisfied.

"We're not where we want to be," he said. "We've got to keep getting better."

Good idea because where they were Monday morning, while four points from the final playoff seed in the Western Conference, also was only four points removed from last place.

With 26 games to play, the standings show the Hawks will have to leapfrog three teams to make the playoffs. At the same time, only four teams cushion them from the conference cellar.

They're as close to the bottom as they are to being a playoff team. So now is not the time to make grand pronouncements. The scale could tip either way.

After upsetting the Capitals and Islanders at home to start their streak, the Hawks' last five victories have come against teams lurking in the NHL's bottom half. The latest conquest, the Red Wings, are 30th in the 31-team league.

Though the Wings have come out strong in many of their losses since New Year's Day, this was not among them. They spotted the Hawks a two-goal lead early.

The Wings closed the gap to 2-1 in the second period and 3-2 in the third. Kane, however, answered 57 seconds after the latter, followed by a Toews empty-netter about a minute and a half after that for the latest triumph in a rivalry not even NHL alignment can completely destroy.

Winning streaks are nice. This is the Hawks' longest since March 2017, a prelude to getting swept from the playoffs as the No. 1 seed by the Predators in the opening round.

Beating the Red Wings also is all well and good, especially seeing how it allowed for some Kane-Toews nostalgia.

But it took Cam Ward turning away 43 of 45 shots to keep the Hawks in a game against one of the league's lesser lights.

Is that sustainable against better teams?

Next up are the Bruins, who beat the Hawks 4-2 on Jan. 1 at Notre Dame Stadium. They look to be a stiffer test Tuesday night for the visiting Hawks, what with a 20-7-3 home record.

Of the Hawks' next eight games after Tuesday's date with the Bruins, only two are against teams that currently have winning records and would make the playoffs if the postseason started today.

Juicier still, that stretch includes the teams with the NHL's five lowest point totals. It's hard to conceive of how the Hawks wouldn't keep fattening up playing the Devils, Senators, Red Wings, Ducks and Kings, so things should continue to look better and better.

At least for a while.

The games after that are a bit more of a challenge, beginning March 3 on the road against the Sharks. Nine of the Hawks' final 17 games are against what, for the moment, look to be playoff teams.

That includes five of the last six, when in the space of 10 nights, the Hawks play the Sharks, Jets, Blues, Stars and Predators (plus the lowly Kings as a palate cleanser right after the Sharks).

That's the real test, not this run, which has revealed the Hawks to have a pulse, or the one that might follow it, which could get others' pulses racing.

Daydreaming about these Hawks still playing in May or beyond seems a bit much. They might not make it to Tax Day.

But if they're not as good as many want to believe, they also are not as bad as they appeared until mid-January.

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