The situation has gotten quite serious for the Chicago Blackhawks.
The defending Stanley Cup champions find themselves in fifth place in the Western Conference and third in the Central Division with 16 games to go in the fast-moving regular season.
That means that if the playoffs started today, the Blackhawks would engage the Colorado Avalanche in the first round and they would not have home-ice advantage.
That's a far cry from last year's results when the Blackhawks did not taste a defeat in regulation time in the first 24 games of the season, won the President's Trophy and went on to hoist the Stanley Cup.
This year, the Blackhawks were in first place in the Central Division for much of the regular season, but they were caught and passed by the St. Louis Blues in late January and the Colorado Avalanche went by them into second place Wednesday night.
While the Avs have been a surprise this year, they have not been a fluke. They have handled the Blackhawks quite well during the regular season, beating them in four of five regular-season meetings.
The Blackhawks have an eight-point edge over the Los Angeles Kings, who are in sixth place in the Western Conference. While that seems sizable, the Kings are playing their best hockey of the season and have rolled to eight consecutive victories.
The Blackhawks recently played nine of 10 games on the road, but they will now have a chance to get well at home. They will play six of their next seven games at the United Center.
That should give them an advantage, but they have not used their home ice to dominate the competition this year. They have played 32 home games to this point in the season and they have won just 20 of them. While they have only suffered five regulation defeats on home ice, they have lost in overtime or a shootout seven times.
That's not the way a championship team should perform at home. Additionally, if the Blackhawks are going to climb back over the Avalanche and get a chance to engage the high-flying Blues, they have to take advantage of their home-ice opportunity.
The Blackhawks' poor performance when games go to extra time has been a nagging issue all season. That problem has also been evidenced on the road. However, it's an even bigger issue at home because opponents who can go into the United Center and come away with two points get an added dose of confidence because they have beaten the defending champions on their home ice. Even if that win doesn't come until overtime or the shootout, that's still a notable achievement.
Head coach Joel Quenneville has not lost his perspective about his team. He understands that shootouts are little more than a skills competition and it has nothing to do with his team playing poorly.
"It's probably a fluky stat over the course of this year," Quenneville told Chris Hine (subscription required) of the Chicago Tribune. "Over the past couple, three, four years it has been a positive stat for us."
The Blackhawks have lost six of their last seven shootouts and are 5-8 on the season in that category.
However, they have also struggled in overtime games. They are a disastrous 0-6 in games that have been decided with a score in the extra five minutes.
If the Blackhawks had won three of those overtime games and managed to win three more shootout games, they would have 96 points instead of 90. That would be enough to put them in first place in the Central Division and the Western Conference.
What-ifs are nice to contemplate, but they have little to do with the situation the Blackhawks find themselves in right now. They have home games coming up against the Nashville Predators (two), Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Carolina Hurricanes and the Dallas Stars.
Winning all of those games—and not giving away any of those points in extra time—may be the key to climbing in the standings and making sure the Blackhawks get home-ice advantage in at least one round of the playoffs.
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