Every time the Chicago Blackhawks take the ice, they have a target on their backs.
As the defending Stanley Cup champions, every opponent wants to take them down. A victory over the Blackhawks represents a major achievement, and that's good for a team's confidence level.
But there are certain opponents who bring out the best in the Blackhawks. In the past, any list of their top rivals would include the Detroit Red Wings at either the first or second spot.
That's no longer the case. The Red Wings have not only shifted to the Eastern Conference, they have slipped a notch or two and don't appear to be in the same class as the Blackhawks.
In this piece, we look at the Blackhawks' top five rivals as the 2013-14 season plays out.
Why they are rivals: The Ducks have the best record in the NHL and are one point better than the Blackhawks. The Blackhawks may have been the dominant team in the league last year, but don't tell the Ducks how good they are. Anaheim was 3-0 vs. the Blackhawks last season, and the Ducks won their first meeting with them this season.
Key matchup: Anaheim C Ryan Getzlaf vs. Chicago C Jonathan Toews. This is one of the best battles in the NHL. The outcome of this battle is going to have a huge impact on the scoreboard. Getzlaf is a bit more offensive-minded than Toews, who may be the most complete player in the league. Getzlaf is third in the league in scoring with 43 points and a plus-18 rating, while Toews has 33 points and is plus-nine.
Next meeting: Anaheim at Chicago, Jan. 17
Why they are rivals: These two Original Six rivals met in last season's Stanley Cup Final, and the Blackhawks defeated the Bruins in six memorable games. The Bruins were on the verge of forcing a seventh game as they led Game 6 by a goal in the final minutes. However, the Blackhawks tied it up with 1:16 remaining and scored the series winner 17 seconds later to shock the Bruins. The Blackhawks celebrated their second Stanley Cup in four years on the Bruins' home ice at the TD Garden.
Key matchup: Chicago forwards vs. Boston defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. The Bruins' shutdown pair regularly work together in the team's biggest games, and they appeared to be getting the best of the Blackhawks when they took a 2-1 lead after the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final. At that point, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane decided the Blackhawks needed to attack the Bruins' best defensemen rather than avoid them. That change in strategy keyed three consecutive Chicago victories. How will Chara and Seidenberg react this time?
Next meeting: Boston at Chicago, Jan. 19
Why they are rivals: The Kings and the Blackhawks have won the last two Stanley Cup championships. Additionally, the Kings were the defending champions when they met the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final last year. The Blackhawks eliminated the Kings in five games, with the final blow coming on an overtime goal by Patrick Kane.
Key matchup: Kings' size and strength vs. Blackhawks' speed and creativity. This is not a matchup of two one-dimensional teams. The Kings skate very well and can score, while the Blackhawks can muscle up and play a hard-hitting game. However, when the Kings are at their best, they are tough, physical and grinding down the opposition. The Blackhawks want to use their speed and skill to take the heart out of their opponents.
Next meeting: Los Angeles at Chicago, Dec. 30
Why they are rivals: The Blues and the Blackhawks have been battling each other in a brutal rivalry for decades. The Blackhawks and Blues are the two best teams in the NHL Central, and they figure to fight for the top spot in the division through the end of the season. The Blackhawks and Blues have met in 10 playoff series, with the Blackhawks holding a 7-3 edge.
Key matchup: St. Louis forwards David Backes, Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie vs. Chicago defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The Blues' top line is capable of dominating any game, but they will be up against it when they try to get the best of Keith and Seabrook. Backes is an elite two-way center, Steen is a scoring machine while Oshie will go to the dirty areas to make plays. Keith is the odds-on favorite to win the Norris Trophy while Seabrook is smart, physical and skilled.
Next meeting: Chicago at St. Louis, Dec. 28
Why they are rivals: The Blackhawks and Canucks have had one of the most heated rivalries in the NHL in the past five years, as the two teams have regularly been at or near the top of the Western Conference. The Canucks and Blackhawks met in the postseason in three consecutive years from 2009 through 2011. The Blackhawks' victory in the 2010 series helped catapult them to the Stanley Cup championship. The Canucks got revenge the following year, and they made it to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final that season.
Key matchup: Goalie Corey Crawford vs. goalie Roberto Luongo. When both of these teams are at their best, it's going to come down to which team gets the better goaltending. The goaltender who can make the most crucial saves at the key moments is going to give his team the edge. (While both Crawford and Luongo are injured, both goalies should be back in the lineup shortly.)
Next meeting: Chicago at Vancouver, Jan. 29