The Chicago Blackhawks have faced a series of challenges this season as they attempt to defend the Stanley Cup they won with a remarkable two-goal, 17-second performance last June at TD Garden against the Boston Bruins.
The Blackhawks go back to the scene of that triumph Thursday night to face a red-hot Bruins team that has recorded a 12-0-1 mark in its last 13 games.
At the start of that streak, the Bruins ranked second in the Eastern Conference behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and were not considered to be as strong as Western Conference powerhouses like the Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.
That's no longer the case, as the surging Bruins have passed the Penguins in the standings and are battling the Blues for the NHL's best regular-season record.
The Bruins had won 12 straight games before dropping a shootout at home to the Montreal Canadiens on March 24. Claude Julien's team has been consistent throughout the season and it has avoided losing streaks. The Bruins have not lost more than two games in a row at any point, and they have been able to rise to all challenges.
They are sure to find that extra level of inspiration when the Blackhawks return to Boston for the first time since they skated the Stanley Cup around the Garden. The Bruins are perhaps the most complete team in the NHL, and they can further enhance that reputation with an overwhelming performance against the Blackhawks.
Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville knows his team is likely to get the Bruins' best effort. On the surface, it looks like a very difficult assignment because the Blackhawks are playing without superstar Patrick Kane (knee injury) and they have not been playing their best hockey.
Even with a victory over the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night, the Blackhawks are 7-6-1 in their last 14 games. Throughout the season, the Blackhawks have also had problems when games have gone past the 60-minute mark. They have dropped 15 of 20 games that have been decided in overtime or a shootout.
That lack of efficiency is a big reason the Blackhawks (99 points) trail St. Louis (105 points), Boston (104 points) and San Jose (103 points) in the regular-season standings.
While this game is a challenge for the Blackhawks, this team has shown it can respond to these situations. Consistency may be lacking, but the Blackhawks have had some dramatic victories this season against excellent teams.
They beat the Ducks and Bruins in consecutive games in mid-January. They rolled to an impressive 5-1 triumph over the Pittsburgh Penguins at snowy Soldier Field in a Stadium Series meeting March 1, and they blanked the Blues 4-0 last week at the United Center.
The Blackhawks dominated the 2013 season from start to finish. This year, they have played well but have not been as good as the Blues, Bruins and Sharks. However, Quenneville's team is not conceding anything to those teams, even if they don't have the regular-season record to match them.
Nor should they. The Blackhawks rank first in scoring with 3.27 goals per game, third in 5-on-5 play with a ratio of 1.39 goals-to-1.00 for their opponents and second in shots per game with 33.2. That last statistic is indicative of the puck-possession advantage the Blackhawks have most nights.
The Blackhawks may have a disadvantage against the Bruins because Kane is not in the lineup, but they are still capable of mounting an excellent effort and serving notice that they have a legitimate chance to defend their title.
This game is likely to serve as a barometer for Quenneville and his players. The Blackhawks will find out how well they can compete against the hottest team in the league, and it could go a long way for their confidence if the Blackhawks can come up with their best road game of the season.
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