The Chicago Blackhawks are on top of the NHL's Western Conference at the quarter pole of the 2013-14 campaign. Now the 'Hawks are entering a key stretch of the season—the team's annual November road trip.
This year's trek is an endurance test, to say the least. In the next 12 days, the Blackhawks will take on seven conference foes. Chicago will play every other day until the trip ends with back-to-back games.
The 'Hawks haven't played consecutive games away from the United Center all season, with the exception of their two-game swing through Florida. Now they pack for two weeks of room service and visiting locker rooms.
Here is a look at each road opponent, starting Tuesday night in Colorado.
When: Tuesday, Nov. 19, 8:00 p.m. CST
The Avs have dropped three games in a row as the 'Hawks hit town and have been outscored 13-5 in the process. They trail Chicago by just four points in the Central Division standings but have tumbled to fourth place behind the 'Hawks, Wild and Blues.
Matt Duchene, Colorado's leading goal and point scorer, won't be in action Tuesday, having suffered an oblique injury in Saturday's 4-1 loss to Florida. Paul Stastny has 15 points on the season and will head up the Avalanche offense.
Semyon Varlamov struggled in his last start, giving up four goals to Florida Saturday. Jean-Sebastien Giguere gave up five goals against the Blues last Thursday but has been very good in reserve (5-0, 1.73 goals-against average, .947 save percentage).
Colorado's speed up front has presented problems in recent meetings for the Blackhawks, though Chicago won two of thee games against the Avalanche last season.
When: Thursday, Nov. 21, 7:00 p.m. CST
After the Blackhawks dispensed the Jets 5-1 Nov. 2 and 4-1 Nov. 6, Winnipeg has been on a bit of a tear. The Jets have won five of their last seven after losing Monday's game with the Flames.
The 'Hawks were able to get the puck past both Jets goalies, though Ondrej Pavelec has strung together some impressive starts since he was pulled after giving up four goals in less than 26 minutes when Chicago visited Winnipeg.
Pavelec shut out Nashville Nov. 8 (41 saves) and has a .943 save percentage while winning four of his last five games. The Jets have been giving up 32 shots a game, though. If the Blackhawks can keep the pressure on, they could hang a big number on Winnipeg.
When: Saturday, Nov. 23, 9:00 p.m. CST
With a 11-8-3 mark as of Tuesday, Vancouver has given up two more goals than it has scored so far in 2013-14. However, the Canucks shouldn't have any problems getting up for the defending champs.
Henrik and Daniel Sedin pace the Vancouver attack with 22 and 17 points, respectively. A lot of the usual faces will line up across from the 'Hawks, including center Ryan Kesler (nine goals, six assists), forward Alexandre Burrows and defenseman Kevin Bieksa.
Former Chicago defensive prospect Ryan Stanton was claimed off of waivers before the start of the season by the Canucks and has a goal and six helpers on the year. It's hard to think that new coach John Tortorella won't start Roberto Luongo in net.
The Blackhawks should expect a physical affair as the road trip approaches the midway point.
When: Monday, Nov. 25, 8:30 p.m. CST
The Canadian portion of the trip continues with a date at Rexall Place against the Oilers. Edmonton came to Chicago and dropped a see-saw contest 5-4 to the Blackhawks.
The Oilers have a host of skaters who have the skills to put the puck in the net. This could be a tough game to get up for after tangling with the Canucks. A worn-out Chicago club could find itself on the short end of a blowout if it comes in flat.
Devan Dubnyk won Saturday in Calgary but has not had a strong campaign. Ilya Bryzgalov was called up after being signed a week ago and could be the man in net by the time Chicago arrives in Oil Country.
When: Wednesday, Nov. 27, 9:00 p.m. CST
The Flames are scuffling, having lost eight of their last 10 games. They do have a win over the Blackhawks this season, however.
Reto Berra won his NHL debut against Chicago with an impressive 42-save performance in a 3-2 Calgary win Nov. 3. Following that night, the rookie dropped five straight starts before Calgary beat the Jets in overtime Monday. Berra is carrying a 3.65 goals-against average to go with a .889 save percentage.
Calgary picked up Oilers defenseman Ladislav Smid last week but appear to be in sell mode as the losses pile up.
When: Friday, Nov. 29, 7:30 CST
Chicago's sixth game of the road trip will be stateside against a Stars team that will have played just three games over the last two weeks.
The 'Hawks went to Dallas Nov. 9, picking up a 5-2 win after trailing twice in the contest. Patrick Sharp assisted on four of the Chicago goals.
Dallas has some weapons on offense, most notably forwards Jaimie Benn and Tyler Seguin, both of whom currently have 23 points in 20 games. Kari Lehtonen has been awesome in goal when he hasn't been hurt or facing the Blackhawks.
When: Saturday, Nov. 30, 7:00 p.m. CST
Phoenix is right in the thick of things in the Western Conference, having gone 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. The Coyotes came to Chicago and were beaten 5-4 in a shootout Nov. 14 but trail the Blackhawks by a single point in the standings.
There is a lot of balance at the top of the scoresheet for Phoenix. Center Martin Hanzal leads the team with 18 points, Radim Vrbata has 17 points and four players (Shane Doan, Mike Ribiero, Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson) have 16 points.
The 'Hawks won both games they played in Phoenix last season. Even at the end of a long road trip and facing Mike Smith in net, Chicago is still capable of returning to town on a winning note.
This isn't going to be an easy run out West. This is a grueling road trip with little recovery time between games. With Marian Hossa having missed the last two games, it wouldn't surprise me to see a call-up or two from Rockford to give coach Joel Quenneville some options for keeping his team fresh.
Antti Raanta is now on the roster and will be making his NHL debut sometime on this trip. Winnipeg and Calgary seem like good bets for Raanta to get a start.
Long trips like this are traditionally a good time for teams to build chemistry. Returning forward Kris Versteeg can get a chance to settle in and re-bond with his old teammates.
If the 'Hawks can stay healthy and draw a little closer as a team, eight or nine points would be an acceptable return on this trip.