The Chicago Blackhawks are ending the 2013 portion of this season's schedule with what should be an interesting stretch of games. Back-to-back action this weekend against two pesky Central Division foes figures to be a test of mettle for the 'Hawks.
Chicago hosts Colorado Friday before traveling to St. Louis for a key Saturday night matchup. It's too early to tag this a make-or-break weekend, though the action should prove to be quite compelling.
Here are five questions to ponder heading into a busy weekend.
Chicago has wins over every team in the Central Division so far in 2013-14, with the exception of Colorado and St. Louis. While the 'Hawks have only had one game against the Avalanche, the result was less than spectacular.
That would be a 5-1 loss in Colorado Nov. 19.
In what would be the only loss on a 6-1 Circus Trip for the 'Hawks, the blemish was the first game of the two-week road jaunt. Colorado chased Corey Crawford just 13 minutes in and cruised to victory.
The Blues burned Chicago for a late goal in a 3-2 win in St. Louis back on Oct. 9. They came to the United Center Oct. 17 and used a T.J. Oshie shootout tally to best the Blackhawks 3-2.
Chicago is just 8-6-1 against Central Division competition. A weekend sweep would sure hit the spot in terms of bettering that mark.
Raanta relieved Crawford against Colorado Nov. 19 and has started every game in Crawford's absence dating back to Dec. 10. In his seven starts, Raanta has played twice in back-to-back contests.
With this weekend's action followed by a Monday night date with the Kings and veteran backup Jason LaBarbera now with the team, does coach Joel Quenneville give the rookie the net in all three games?
It is a likely scenario as Raanta has been off for the last three nights. On the other hand, it wouldn't come as a total shock to see LaBarbera between the pipes Saturday night in St. Louis.
Crawford is skating but is probably still a week or so from eyeing a return. For this stretch of three games in four nights, Quenneville has Raanta and LaBarbera to choose from. If he is considering using both goalies, we should probably see LaBarbera this weekend.
Bickell has been getting his legs under him following a month-long stretch out of the lineup with a lower-body injury. The big 'Hawks forward was injured when he ran into the goal in the loss in Colorado Nov. 19.
Bickell returned with nine minutes of action against Nashville Dec. 17 and has seen his ice time increase in each of his three games back in the lineup. Bickell played 12:49 Monday night against the Devils, scoring the game-winner in the second period.
The wrist shot from the right dot was Bickell's sixth of the season. Playing with Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad, Bickell helps complete a powerful, physical third line. Especially against the Blues, this group will come in handy.
With a busy schedule over the next four days, the third line could see a bump in minutes. How productive Bickell is with Shaw and Saad could prove to be a key factor in how Chicago fares.
The Chicago penalty kill has perked up a bit as of late. How does that factor into this weekend?
The Avalanche were stopped in their only power play back on Nov. 19, though with five goals, they did just fine at even strength.
Chicago has allowed power-play goals to the Blues in each of the first two meetings between the teams. The 'Hawks were 0-4 on the man advantage Oct. 17 in the shootout loss.
Two power-play goals on Oct. 9 kept Chicago in the contest until Alexander Steen (who is out for Saturday's tilt) won the game for St. Louis in the closing seconds. Despite missing their top scorer, the Blues have top-10 units on both the power play and the penalty kill.
The physical nature of a Chicago-St. Louis clash could result in both teams getting chances to sway the game with special teams.
A pair of weekend victories trumps the desire to see Kane extend his points streak. That mark currently sits at 12 games, equaling his season high set last month.
The current streak has seen Kane hotter than ever, with 22 points in those dozen contests. That includes seven multipoint games.
In 11 December contests, Kane has seven goals and a dozen assists. Keeping the streak alive doesn't assure a successful weekend for the Blackhawks. However, it sure couldn't hurt Chicago's chances and will be fun to watch.