Rozner: Is this Blackhawks run for real?
Don't look now -- and perhaps you haven't -- but the Blackhawks have been on a pretty nice roll and are threatening to get in the playoff race.
The focus is on this six-game win streak, extended with a 4-3 overtime victory over Vancouver at the United Center on Thursday night, bringing the Hawks within two points of the Canucks, but the resurgence really began in December when they won five of six heading into the Winter Classic.
That turned out to be an unfortunate distraction, the Hawks losing seven of their next eight -- including New Year's Day in South Bend -- but got it going again just before the break and have won four in a row coming out of the holiday.
So what's changed?
Most obvious is Jeremy Colliton's power play, which has been the best in the league for the last six weeks, and picked up 2 more Thursday night.
But scratch the surface and you see system changes in all three zones, from the forecheck to sorting the rush to defensive zone coverage.
Thing is, when you make assignment changes in your own end during the season, it takes time to get forwards on the same page as the defense, and when they're not, defensemen can look foolish and turnovers are common because the forwards are not where the defense thinks they're going to be.
Altering zone coverage in season with a new coach and frequent lineup changes is like rowing a sinking boat with one hand while using the other to bail water with a spaghetti strainer.
Especially in the first five weeks under Colliton, as the Hawks tried to adjust on the fly, it was often ugly. Really ugly.
But the new staff asked for more, insisted the players stick to a system and has been holding them accountable.
And now, the players are buying in.
Things can get stale when you've heard one voice for a decade. That's not a knock on Joel Quenneville. Just a fact.
He held players accountable when he first got here, especially youngsters like Patrick Kane, but through three Stanley Cups there came a point where he learned to trust his veterans and they always delivered.
Until they didn't.
So now a new coach -- a rookie head coach -- asks for more and the players are listening, especially the younger players, some of whom played for Colliton at Rockford.
For some veterans, particularly on defense, it has been a challenge.
Ultimately, however, hockey players like structure. They want to know that when they do what they're told, the results will be positive.
Thus, some confidence and a better stretch of hockey in Chicago.
It coincides with Connor Murphy returning from a back injury Dec. 8, Carl Dahlstrom recalled Dec. 12 and the boost Erik Gustafsson received from a coach he knows well, a coach that believes in him.
Gustafsson is quarterbacking the power play and has incredible chemistry with Kane, but his offensive ability has never been in question. He's always struggled in his own end, but he never had a chance to get better under Quenneville.
The Hall of Fame coach had his guys, as do all coaches, and Gustafsson was never one of them, just as Nick Leddy, Michal Kempny and Trevor Daley struggled to find a place in his heart.
Players aren't guessing anymore as communication with a 34-year-old coach is much different, and roles are clearly defined.
Murphy, in particular, has been a pleasant surprise and has had a big impact on the rotation. He looks nothing like last year's version, witness the way he took Connor McDavid off the puck twice Tuesday night.
It would be huge if he could play a top four role moving forward.
But these developments don't mean all is well.
The defense is still far too loose and if they don't clean it up, this ascent in the standings -- just two weeks ahead of the trade deadline -- will be mere mirage.
They are climbing out of huge hole and with 3-point games all the rage the last six weeks of the season, it remains a huge task.
It is, at the very least, a glimpse into the future and has given Hawks fans a much better product to view, actually causing some among the faithful to wonder if selling now is really in their best interests.
Considering all talk was of a rebuild only weeks ago, that is a victory for the franchise.
Optimism has returned for the moment and just like that the season has meaning again.
Raise your hand if you saw that coming.