Tension has certainly risen to a new level in Chicago after the Blackhawks lost a key game to the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday night.
It was a game between two teams that are in a heated battle to earn one of the lower seeds into the playoffs, and it certainly felt and seemed like it was a playoff game.
The standings have gotten even closer, and the fears that this Blackhawks team will be the first since the Hurricanes of five years ago to not make the playoffs after winning the Cup the year before are turning real.
But, much as some wrote the Blackhawks off by January before they skyrocketed back up the standings, the light has not been blown out quite yet.
There are several factors why this Blackhawks team will be proudly standing in the eight-team dance in a few weeks and will once again be battling for the biggest prize in the game.
Clearly this is the easiest reason to pick out, and quite possibly it is the most important. Though there aren't any "gimmes" on any given night in the NHL, the schedule is somewhat favorable for the Blackhawks.
The math is simple when looking at the remaining games. The Blackhawks have played the least amount of games of all seven teams that they are competing with to get into the playoffs. In fact, the Hawks have played three less games than Calgary.
Though the Hawks only will be playing against two teams that aren't playoff bound this season, it is not any easier for the other teams.
The Ducks, who are just above the Hawks in the playoff race, play almost all their remaining games against teams in this heated Western Conference race, including two with the Ducks and Sharks. So someone will end up with the short end of the stick after those games in California.
The ability to handle big game after big game is something that is the undoing of some teams in professional sports. Some can handle the "heat," while others walk away 'dazed and confused.'.
But, not many teams have already proven that they can handle the microscope of big-game hockey like the Chicago Blackhawks have done over the last couple of seasons. Whether it was two years ago in the Western Conference Finals or last year, they have shown a knack for prime time.
They play in a town where the stacks are always high, and the stadium is always full. Most of the guys on the team were involved in the most-watched NHL game in 36 years (Game 6 of the Cup Finals).
The likes of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and a host of others are going to show by example how to get it done in these ultra-important games. Because they cannot make it if the role players do not perform.
Since the parade and the numerous occasions of celebration over the championship win last season, the Blackhawks have had alot of different oddities and unfortunate situations bestowed upon the team.
The salary cap situation was a known and dreaded reality that had to be faced. The slump early in the season had many fans and pundits across the league writing off the 2011 Blackhawks as a faux of their predecessor.
Coach Quenneville's scare that landed him in the hospital and the recent injury to Patrick Sharp are just some more of many examples of the roller coaster that has been this season.
After the 2010 team ran as smooth as it nearly could, this season has been extremely hard to read. It should be expected that down this final stretch, the players will try just a bit harder to show they have not let this difficult season define them as a team.
Two of the biggest names in the game today have been bright spots all year for the Blackhawks. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have been in the top 20 in points in the league for much of the season and have shown that they are two of the best young players in the world.
But now more then ever, they must show that they have the leadership to get this team where it needs to be.
Last season was different as they were able to blend into the scenery a bit more with the elite talent around them. Whether its Troy Brouwer or Viktor Stalberg playing with them on the first line from here on out with Sharp hurt, they must be on their top game.
Blackhawks v. Red Wings.
Three games remain between the bitter rivals that date back to the glory days of hockey of the 'Original Six.'
It is what the NHL, fans and the players want as these teams will have alot to play for in this games, which include two during the final weekend of the regular season.
The Wings are wrapping up the division, but they are trying to hold on to the No. 2 seed in the West over San Jose. They also would like nothing more then to eliminate the Blackhawks and not have to deal with hearing "Chelsea Dagger" possibly in a playoff matchup.
And, for the Blackhawks, these games could be for all the marbles. Defending the Cup will be at stake and the chance to prove that the chorus of United Center fans chanting that 'Detroit Sucks' is in fact the truth.