The Chicago Blackhawks' six-game road trip prior to the Olympic break has already been an up-and-down affair. Entering a crucial stretch of action starting Saturday night, the team barometer could go either way depending on the results of the next three games.
The 'Hawks are on the California part of their itinerary, starting with Saturday's matchup against the San Jose Sharks. The Los Angeles Kings await Chicago on Monday night, followed by a big game with the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday.
Chicago is coming off of a 5-2 win in Vancouver that snapped a four-game losing streak. The Sharks are returning home with their own three-game skid weighing on their minds.
The Calgary Flames have handed each team its most recent defeat, having beaten the Blackhawks in overtime Tuesday night and San Jose Thursday. The Sharks potted a single goal in those three losses, while Chicago has nine goals in the first two games of the road trip.
The 'Hawks and Sharks split the two meetings in Chicago this season. The Blackhawks beat San Jose 5-1 back on Nov. 17. The Sharks bested Chicago 3-2 in a Jan. 5 shootout.
The SAP Center can be a tough place to play, but the 'Hawks have held their own there, posting a 3-3-1 record over the previous four seasons. Chicago scored a 5-3 win in San Jose last season in its only visit in the 2012-13 season back on Feb. 5.
With four games to play before the Olympic tournament halts play in the NHL for a few weeks, the difference between optimism and pessimism will be determined by how the Blackhawks are able to fare in this California stretch. Chicago is 4-0-2 against the Sharks, Kings and Ducks. All those games, however, have been home dates for the 'Hawks.
San Jose sports a 19-3-3 home record so far this season. The Kings are 16-8-3, while Anaheim is 22-2-2 in its building in 2013-14. This is a tough trio of games coming up for the Blackhawks.
A four-line attack was key in beating the Canucks despite falling two goals behind in the first 22 minutes. Chicago got some nice play from the first and fourth lines in particular, though spreading the ice time up and down the lineup is what's important.
Coach Joel Quenneville may insert Bryan Bickell into the lineup Saturday after scratching him in two of the last three games. He may keep Michal Handzus in the middle of the third line after a win. Regardless of who plays, getting the bottom lines into the action should be part of the blueprint for success.
Corey Crawford relieved Antti Raanta Tuesday night and has appeared in 10 of Chicago's last 12 games. I would expect to see him in net Saturday as well as Wednesday night in Anaheim. If Raanta gets a start in California, I'd guess that he takes to the crease in Los Angeles Monday.
The Blackhawks didn't have a dominant January and have been playing a lot of three-point games lately. Starting a new month off on the road is a tall order for Chicago. A lack of focus could easily lead to a new losing streak.
The season isn't going to be decided in California this week. That said, taking at least two of the next three games ensures a split of the trip heading into the Olympics. A little momentum couldn't hurt heading into the break.