BY MARK POTASH
The Blackhawks know they can't take the Columbus Blue Jackets lightly.
Even when the Hawks were hotter than hot and the Blue Jackets were floundering earlier this season, the Hawks struggled to keep their historic streak alive against Columbus. they won 3-2 in Columbus on Jan. 26, 1-0 at the United Center on Feb. 24 and 4-3 in overtime at the United Center on March 1.
Now, it's the Hawks who are struggling -- a relative term for a team that is 24-2-3 -- while the Blue Jackets (10-12-5) are heating up. They are 5-0-3 in their last eight games. They have not lost in regulation since Corey Crawford made Andrew Shaw's second-period goal stand up in a 1-0 Blackhawks victory on Feb. 24.
Last season, the Blackhawks were 6-0-0 against the Blue Jackets, winning all six games by three goals or more and outscoring Columbus 31-10.
''They're a better team [this season],'' Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. ''They're playing really well lately.it's a dangerous team this year. It's not like in year's past, where you think it would be like -- I don't want to say automatic win -- but you'd have a good feeling going in that you were going to come out on top.
''Now it's a little tougher test. Every game's been a one-goal game. With the last one going into overtime. And they've had injuries in that span. It seems like they're getting better as time goes on. We just have to take it like any other team, try to play our game and dictate and get back to the way we were playing earlier in the year.''
The Blackhawks likely will face a new challenge in Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who has wrested the No. 1 job from Steve Mason. The Blackhawks beat Mason in each of their victories over the Blue Jackets. Bobrovsky, though, is 6-1-2 with a 1.55 goals-against-average and .946 save percentage in his last nine games. In the Blue Jackets' current point streak, Bobrovsky has stopped 161 of 166 shots, a sparkling .970 percentage.
''They're playing well and we saw every time we played them how tough the games were and how close they were,'' Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. ''They've improved their team game this year. They work hard. It'll be a real challenging game for us. We should be excited about having a few days off here and looking forward to the game.''