With the approach of the holidays, the traditional halfway point of the NHL season, the Blackhawks are in a very unfamiliar position.
Using a perfect four-point weekend to finish a stretch in which they played eight games in 12 nights, the Hawks are firmly entrenched in the Western Conference playoff race.
Sunday night's 2-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche at the United Center gave the Hawks back-to-back weekend victories, nudged them over .500 for the first time since Oct. 20 and pulled them within two points of the last playoff spot in the West.
"It's still early," center Bryan Smolinski said. "But this is what you play for at the beginning of the season."
Some separation is beginning to develop between Dallas, the sixth team in the West, and the five teams within two points of each other for the last two playoff spots. At least one of those spots figures to be in play for the last 50 games of the season.
"We have to concentrate on one game at a time," coach Denis Savard said. "If you think long-term, it's very difficult."
December has been extremely busy for the Hawks. They ended a 12-day stretch Sunday going 4-1-3 and earned Monday and Tuesday off.
The Hawks won't hit the ice again until Wednesday's morning skate before playing Nashville that night.
Saturday night's 6-4 win at Columbus was a wide-open affair, whereas Sunday's victory was a tight defensive battle.
"It was two teams that respected each other offensively," said Savard, which is coach-speak for two teams that didn't want to take many chances.
The game-winner came 12 minutes 58 seconds into the second period when Adrian Aucoin celebrated his return to the lineup with a power-play goal. It was his second goal of the season and first since Oct. 7.
"It was great," Aucoin said. "It was a fun game. It was tight. [Colorado] had chances, but (goaltender Nikolai) Khabibulin played great."
Khabibulin had 28 saves, including several key stops late in the third period, to improve to 12-5-2 overall and 7-1-2 in his last 10 games. The extra workload hasn't bothered him in the least.
"It's easier when you play more," he said. "You just come out and worry about playing."
The Hawks grabbed the lead late in the first period when Tuomo Ruutu scored his third goal in as many games and fourth in his last five. Entering the rush late on a line change, Ruutu took a pass from Martin Havlat in the slot and slipped a shot past Jose Theodore for his 10th goal of the season.
The lead lasted until 6:13 of the second, when a pair of former Hawks teamed up to even the score. On a delayed penalty to Aucoin, Brett McLean redirected a Tyler Arnason shot over Khabibulin.
"He's a competitor," Savard said of Khabibulin. "He didn't win a Stanley Cup for no reason. He just battles."
As have the other members of Savard's team, which has put itself in a rare position this time of yearright in the middle of a playoff chase.
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