One game out of 82, sixty minutes at a time, anywhere from zero to two points. For NHL teams, the schedule is built with the same principles. Generally speaking, every team wants to be playing their best hockey right now, roughly 50-plus games into the 82-game campaign.
Yet, for the Chicago Blackhawks, the season has taken a rather stark and rapid decline with the Blackhawks going 4-3-5 in the month of January and 0-2-1 in their last three games. Although the Blackhawks have gotten two big wins, there has never been more reason for fans to begin worrying, and coach Joel Quenneville to begin making significant lineup changes.
The latter has already begun in some form, with Bryan Bickell being benched during the Blackhawks’ most recent defeat. Today, Brandon Pirri was recalled, and will likely replace the struggling Michal Handzus on the third line. It is also possible Pirri will see action within the top six, where he could reenergize the struggling Patrick Kane.
Realistically, Chicago is no longer even in contention for the Presidents Cup, or the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference that goes with that. The Blackhawks have left plenty of points on the table, despite leading the league in goals per game and ranking third in goal differential. No team within the top nine in ESPN.com NHL Power Rankings has lost more than six overtime contests except the Blackhawks, who lead the NHL with 12 overtime defeats.
That blemish to their record now carries major weight as the Western Conference remains tight from seeds two through five. The St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks have enough games in hand where they would almost certainly be ahead of the Blackhawks in the standings, which would make the Blackhawks the last team with home ice in the playoffs.
Luckily, there is still the Olympic break ahead, and a lot can happen in 28 games. But, as the playoff light at the end of the tunnel shines brighter, each game certainly does carry more weight despite the points being the same. The Blackhawks play six of their remaining games on the upcoming West Coast road trip that features some excellent competition. Although there is still plenty of hockey to be played, it feels like a make or break stretch for the defending champions.
Follow Mike Guzman on Twitter @Mike486.