The Blackhawks are firing on all cylinders once again this season, and even after their 5-4 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings at the Joe Louis Arena Jan. 22, they have 76 points and are second in the NHL behind the high-flying Anaheim Ducks.
However, they are going to be tested in their eight remaining games before the Olympic break. Seven of these games are away from the United Center, and the last five in the trip are as tough a stretch as the Blackhawks will face all season.
That appears to be the easy part of the finishing kick. However, once they get through those games, the Blackhawks will face the Vancouver Canucks, the San Jose Sharks, the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim and the Phoenix Coyotes before they hit the Olympic break.
That's really a gauntlet of opponents who are capable of causing a great deal of damage to Joel Quenneville's team. The Blackhawks will be challenged more by those five games than they have by any stretch that they are likely to see until the Stanley Cup playoffs start in mid-April.
If Quenneville's team is its best, putting together a stellar record over the next eight games is quite viable. However, if they are a notch or two below the way they normally play, they could get supplanted at the top of the Central Division by the St. Louis Blues.
The Wild represent a serious challenge. This team wants nothing more than to beat the Blackhawks after getting eliminated from last year's playoffs in five games. Minnesota has beaten Chicago in two of three meetings so far this season, and since the Blackhawks are coming into this game with no rest, they could be vulnerable in this game.
The Jets have gotten a huge lift since Paul Maurice replaced Claude Noel at head coach, recording four straight wins. The Jet handed the Ducks a 3-2 defeat in Anaheim Jan. 21, and that was their first regulation loss at home.
Even if the Blackhawks are not at their best, they certainly should be able to handle anything the Calgary Flames have to offer. However, if goalie Karri Ramo gets hot, he is capable of frustrating the Blackhawks. Ramo registered 30 saves as the Flames beat the Coyotes 3-2 Jan. 22.
The Canucks are holding onto the seventh spot in the Western Conference, and they could get a lift with more even-keeled Mike Sullivan behind the bench in place of the suspended John Tortorella. The Blackhawks and Canucks have been hating each other for years, and this game promises to be a major challenge.
The Sharks are one of the best teams in the league and they usually play their most dominating hockey at the SAP Center (better known as the Shark Tank). Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle and Antti Niemi have led the Sharks to a 17-2-3 record at home this season.
The Kings have not been playing their best hockey (4-8-2 in their last 14 games), but they are still recognized as one of the elite teams in the league. After winning the 2012 Stanley Cup, they were eliminated in the Western Conference Final by the Blackhawks last year.
The Kings have the size and speed to play the kind of heavy game that the Blackhawks don't like. They're also very tough to beat when they get the lead: They have not lost a game this year when they are leading after two periods.
Anaheim is the penultimate stop on the pre-Olympic trip. The Blackhawks played one of their best games of the season when they defeated the Ducks 4-2 Jan. 17 at the United Center. It's hard to picture Ryan Getzlaf and his teammates allowing the Blackhawks to put a similar beating on them when they visit the Honda Center.
The Coyotes are currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in as they sit in ninth place, four points behind the Minnesota Wild. Nobody would argue that the Coyotes have a dominating roster, but they do have players in Mike Smith, Shane Doan, Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson who are capable of frustrating the Blackhawks on a given night.
This chunk of the schedule will be difficult and demanding. If the Blackhawks are at their best, they could put together a stellar 6-1-1 record. However, they could end up 3-4-1 or even worse if they are not.
Quenneville is one of the best in the business at preparing his team for difficulties. Look for the Blackhawks to rise to the occasion and come a lot closer to the former mark than the latter.
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