The Chicago Blackhawks have not had the kind of regular season that they did last year.
That's perfectly understandable. In the truncated 2013 season, the Blackhawks started the year with complete focus. They wanted to recapture their position as the NHL's preeminent franchise after getting knocked out of the playoffs in the first round two years in a row.
They went 24 games before they lost a game in regulation time and they crowned that record-setting achievement by winning their second Stanley Cup in four years.
The Blackhawks did not have any Stanley Cup hangover this year, but they haven't been a regular-season juggernaut, either.
They have found themselves uprooted in the Central Division by the St. Louis Blues and they are in a battle with the Colorado Avalanche for second place—and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Blackhawks have a stellar roster and there is no reason to think that they are not capable of going on another long run in the postseason. They have just been stuck in the "dog days" of the hockey season.
While that term is most often associated with the 162-game Major League Baseball season, it's a reality in the NHL as well. Particularly this season, with a schedule that has been condensed due to the Olympic break.
But with less than a month to go in the season, the Blackhawks are out of the dog days and into the sprint to the finish.
Head coach Joel Quenneville's team understood that the time to go into the full-compete mode was when the St. Louis Blues came calling at the United Center Wednesday night. The Blues had tormented the Blackhawks in their first three meetings, and the Blackhawks wanted to show St. Louis that they still could assert themselves when they needed to.
The Blackhawks played one of their best games of the year, as they blanked the Blues 4-0. Duncan Keith got the Blackhawks off on the right foot with a slap shot from inside the blue line that got through goalie Ryan Miller, and Corey Crawford silenced his critics (momentarily) as he stopped 23 shots.
But there was no celebration after the game. While the game started off as a mission to free themselves from the grip of the dog days, the Blackhawks are now searching for answers after Patrick Kane went down with an apparent knee injury.
Midway through the second period, Sheldon Brookbank checked Brenden Morrow of the Blues, and Morrow careened into Kane's left knee.
Kane stayed down on the ice for about 10 seconds and made his way slowly to the bench. By the start of the third period, NBC's Pierre McGuire reported that Kane would be out at least two weeks as a result of the injury. Quenneville reported after the game that Kane could miss the rest of the regular season.
That injury has immediately changed the Blackhawks' mission. They no longer have to wake up from their midseason slumber. An injury to a superstar like Kane gets everybody's attention.
But now the focus is on overcoming the loss, which in some ways is impossible. Kane is the Blackhawks' second-best offensive player behind Jonathan Toews and his stick-handling and scoring ability cannot be replaced.
While Quenneville and the rest of his players will talk about everyone trying to find a way to make up for the loss, there's nobody with Kane's skill set.
That doesn't mean that the Blackhawks are going to fold their tents or concede second place to the Avs. They are still among the most talented teams in the NHL, even if Kane is sidelined.
The hope, of course, is that Kane will return for the playoffs without any lingering knee problems. There are no assurances that will be the case.
However, the Blackhawks still have a roster that is capable of winning games and dominating in the final 12 games.
If they can finish 9-3-0 or better in those games, they should be able to wrest second place from the Avs. Couple that with the return of a healthy Kane, and they could be in a position to make a run at yet another Stanley Cup.
But for now, it's all about making the most out of those final 12 games and hoping that Kane's recovery goes well.
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