The post-Olympic section of the NHL schedule should serve as a focus point for all teams that consider themselves Stanley Cup contenders.
For the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, this is the part of the season where they want to get their game up to speed so they are at a peak level when the 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs begin in mid-April.
Last year, the Blackhawks dominated a truncated regular season and were not challenged in a meaningful way until the playoffs started.
This year, they have been the hunted since the beginning of the season and they have been challenged by the strongest teams in the Western Conference.
As the Blackhawks get ready to amp up their game, they see that the Anaheim Ducks have earned the top spot in the Western Conference and they are sharing first place in the Central Division with the St. Louis Blues.
The Blues are recognized by the NHL as the No. 1 team in the division because they have more victories (39-35) and two games in hand.
The San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche are within reasonable striking distance, just four and five points behind Chicago, respectively. It's not inconceivable that the Blackhawks could end up anywhere between first and fifth in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season.
The most realistic spots are either second or third. They should battle the Blues down to the final week of the season for the Central Division title.
If the Blackhawks come out on top in that battle, that would earn them the second seed in the Western Conference. In the new playoff format that gives playoff spots to the top three teams in each division, the Blackhawks would play the wild-card team with the best record.
Based on the Feb. 27 standings, that would put the Blackhawks in a first-round playoff matchup with the Minnesota Wild for the second consecutive year. The Blackhawks dispatched the Wild in five games last year, and they would be favorites in a subsequent matchup this season.
But if the Blues emerge as the top team in the division, that would change their first-round playoff matchup dramatically, and it would likely have an impact on their mindset.
The Blackhawks would be the No. 2 team in the Central, and under the new format they would play the No. 3 team in the division. At the moment, that would be the young and hungry Colorado Avalanche.
The Avs got off to a superlative start under Hall of Famer and first-year head coach Patrick Roy, and the personnel on the team has branded this team as an up-and-coming unit in the NHL. Would they have enough to push the Blackhawks to the limit and possibly beat them? That's quite debatable, but a young team that makes the playoffs for the first time playing against the defending champions would not have the burden of expectations weighing it down.
The Avs would likely be thrilled to be playing in the postseason for the first time since 2009-10, and they would likely be loose and ready to play their best hockey.
The Blackhawks would also have a different mindset than they did a year ago. They were under the strong belief that they were the best team in the league. They had played the first 24 games of the 48-game season without a regulation defeat and they had the best record in the NHL. There was a deep belief in the locker room that the Blackhawks were a strong enough team to win the Stanley Cup, even when they were down heading into the fourth game of the Stanley Cup Final.
That confidence paid off as they beat the Boston Bruins in six games and were able to lift the cup for the second time in four years.
How would their mindset be if they go into the playoffs as the No. 2 team in the division and the No. 3 team in the conference?
That's a difficult question to answer. The Blackhawks certainly have the leadership strength with head coach Joel Quenneville to go with Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane to overcome an ordinary regular season, but it may not be easy.
Confidence can be fleeting. It can be quite easy to speak publicly about postseason aspirations, but each player and coach still has to look himself in the mirror and figure out why the team fell short.
That moment may not last a long time, but it does have to be confronted. It could be quite beneficial to face up to the possibility that they could have played better during the regular season. Once that conclusion is reached, it could lead to a renewed effort in the postseason.
The Blackhawks will be making a run at their third Stanley Cup in five seasons. Toews, Keith and Sharp are coming off a gold-medal effort in the Olympics for Canada and there is no indication that this team's hunger for glory and championships has been sated.
If the Blackhawks don't win the Central Division championship, it is likely to come with a disappointing taste. But that taste should just be momentary, and it will likely fuel another long run in the postseason.
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