Tough schedule no sweat for hot Blackhawks

The busiest stretch of the season for the Blackhawks — six games in nine nights coming off their seven-game, 14-day circus road trip — is over.

The Hawks finished that stretch Tuesday with a 3-1 victory at Nashville, leaving them still first overall in the NHL with 55 points, 2 ahead of Anaheim.

Coach Joel Quenneville gave the team Wednesday off, and Thursday is the Hawks’ annual family Christmas party at the United Center, which means they won’t be on the ice again as a group until Friday when Vancouver comes to town.

Quenneville couldn’t be more pleased with how the Hawks have battled through the tough schedule, citing the team’s depth as the primary reason.

“I just think we went through a real busy schedule here,” Quenneville said. “I think the balance of our lineup and everybody contributing has been the reason we’re in a good spot here.

“Just don’t get comfortable knowing we’re not playing every day or every other day. I just think we have to get excitement in our team game and get some rest, knowing we can get excited game day.”

The Hawks are 5-1 in their last six games.

“We’ve got a couple days here between now and Friday,” Quenneville said. “We still get the (three) days off at Christmas that everyone gets, but we’ll be busy before you know it again. I don’t think you want to let the guard down. We’ve still got two more games before we go on holiday.

“We’ve had some tough games, but for the most part the consistency has been there. Every game is testing.”

Thanks to the play of rookie Antti Raanta, the Hawks averted what could have been a disaster when Corey Crawford went down with an apparent groin injury Dec. 8 against Florida. Backup Nikolai Khabibulin already was sidelined with a leg injury suffered Nov. 17 in Nashville.

“We’ve found a way to win games before without some of our key players,” Jonathan Toews said. “You know injuries are going to happen.”

Raanta stepped in and the Hawks haven’t skipped a beat. He is 7-1-1 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. “Antti has come in here and done a nice job,” Quenneville said. “Good for him. It was an opportunity for him and he has taken advantage of it.”

Raanta downplays how well he has played.

“I try to take it like every game is a new game and every shot is a chance to prove I belong here,” Raanta said.

The power play also has come alive of late, scoring at least 1 goal in 10 straight games to move up to third in the league rankings behind only Pittsburgh and Washington.

Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith have led the way on the power play along with Andrew Shaw, whose presence in front of the net has made all the difference in the world.

“I think that was something we missed two or three years ago,” Keith said. “If you don’t have a guy in front of the net and you get a shot from the point, nine times out of 10 the goalie is going to see it and make the save.

“It’s important you have that guy in front of the net and Shawzie has been great at it this year. He just keeps on getting better at learning how to screen the goalie and jump on those loose pucks to help with puck recovery after you do get a shot.”

ŸFollow Tim’s hockey reports on Twitter @TimSassone.

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