Chicago Blackhawks\' Andrew Shaw, right, scores a goal against Columbus Blue Jackets\' Steve Mason during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, March 20, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Even without captain Jonathan Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks have been getting off to fast starts recently—which is helping them finish strong.
Patrick Sharp scored two goals, Duncan Keith had four assists and Corey Crawford made 24 saves as the Chicago Blackhawks built a big lead to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-1 on Tuesday night to sweep the season series.
"It's great. It's awesome," Crawford said of the early support he received. "To be up 3-0 right off the bat is great. Hopefully we can maybe do that every game. What else can I say? You can't ask for more."
During a horrendous nine-game losing skid from Jan. 21 to Feb. 16, the Blackhawks had difficulty scoring much at all, let alone scoring early. Now they're jumping on teams and coasting in a four-game winning streak heading into a big home showdown against rival Vancouver on Wednesday night.
"The losing streak that we were on after the All-Star break helped us out more than it hurt us," Sharp said after collecting goals No. 29 and 30. "You never want to lose that many in a row, but it taught us a few lessons about playing the right way. The coaches have been preaching a certain style of play and now we've bought in."
The Blackhawks, who started the night in sixth place in the West playoff race, outscored the Blue Jackets 31-10 in the six games. They won every game by at least three goals over Columbus, which has far and away the worst record in the NHL.
So what is it about the Blackhawks?
"The ability to finish," interim Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said. "The thing that they can do is they can score often and they can score quickly. Over a span of 4 minutes we were looking uphill at a 3-0 game."
Andrew Shaw and Marian Hossa each had a goal and an assist and Brent Seabrook also scored.
"We're feeling good right now," Keith said. "The one thing we've learned is we're not going to take anything for granted. We're playing better but we know there's still more there that we have to get better at. We're happy with our starts the last three games."
Crawford maintained a shutout until Rick Nash tipped in a shot by Jack Johnson to get the Blue Jackets on the board with 7:29 left.
The Blackhawks still do not have a shutout this season.
"It'd be nice once in a while," Crawford said, laughing. "Whatever. We're more worried about two points—but it'd be nice once in a while."
Chicago scored on both of its power-play opportunities and also hit five posts.
The Blackhawks, with Toews missing his 14th game in a row with concussion symptoms, dominated from the outset, scoring three times on their first six shots.
Chicago opened the scoring 4:12 in when Bryan Bickell dug the puck out of the corner then skated past the Blue Jackets' R.J. Umberger to toss a pass in front of the cage that hit off defenceman John Moore and went past a surprised Mason. Shaw, closest to the puck, was awarded the goal.
Just over 2 minutes later, Sharp was at the bottom of the left circle when he threw the puck on net. It somehow slipped between Mason and the near post.
"They just found a hole through my arm there," Columbus goalie Steve Mason said.
The Blackhawks then made it 3-0 in a 4:10 span on the softest of goals. Seabrook was at the very corner of the blue line and the short boards, in front of the Blue Jackets bench, when he innocently flipped the puck 50 feet toward Mason. There were no Chicago players near the net, but the puck hit off of Columbus defenceman Aaron Johnson and by Mason.
"The pucks went in there," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "It was a nice start, scoring first helped. We got some fortunate bounces around the net early. We did some good things in the game. And I thought (Crawford) was good in net, too."
It could have been worse. A quick whistle prevented another potential goal late in the period.
After a scoreless second period, Sharp picked up his second on a one-timer from the right circle off a drop pass from Hossa on the power play. Hossa then made it 5-0 by crashing the net to score thanks to a centring pass from Shaw.
Sharp was denied a third goal on a breakaway in the final seconds.
"It was nice of Joel to kind of throw me out there," Sharp said. "I got a lucky bounce. I got up some speed and was able to get to the open side but (Mason) made a nice save."
It was about the only thing that didn't go the Blackhawks' way.
Notes: Quenneville said Toews skated back in Chicago earlier on Tuesday. ... Columbus was without front-line G Curtis Sanford (leg muscle tear) and D James Wisniewski (hit in the face by a puck). Sanford will likely miss the rest of the season. ... Sharp and Hossa extended their points streaks to six games, Stalberg and Seabrook to five games. ... Nash has eight consecutive seasons with at least 25 goal.
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