Over the next three weeks, the Blackhawks will learn a lot about how they stack up against the rest of hockey’s elite teams.
Between now and March 25, the Hawks will play nine games against playoff teams, most of whom made significant moves at the trade deadline to improve their club. When the Hawks play a home-and-home against Columbus, they should have a good idea of what they’ll need to do to win the Stanley Cup.
Starting Friday, when the Vancouver Canucks come to the United Center (after hammering the Red Wings 6-3 on Wednesday), the Hawks will face one of the toughest stretches of games on their calendar. Four of the first five games are at home, against Vancouver, Detroit (now at 11:30 AM in Chicago, thanks NBC), Los Angeles, then at Philadelphia before hosting Washington on the 14th. In that stretch, the Hawks will do battle with teams currently in third, fourth and eighth in the Western Conference and first and sixth in the East.
If the last two games against the Islanders and Oilers seemed rough at times, wait until this stretch. The little mistakes in the corners will turn into goals, and the probability that the Hawks can hold one of these teams to three shots in a third period like they did on Wednesday is zero.
While the Hawks have faced the Canucks, Red Wings and Kings already this year, the game against the Washington Capitals on the 14th will be the only time during the regular season that they will face the team with the best record in the NHL.
Despite their potent offense and 92 points, the Caps were very busy at the deadline. Washington added defensemen Joe Corvo and Milan Jurcina, and forwards Eric Belanger and Scott Walker in four deals that give them more depth all over their roster. This game will be a nationally-televised gauge for how the Blackhawks match up against the Eastern Conference’s best.
After the first five games, the Hawks hit the road for an intriguing three game trip filled with familiar faces in new places.
The trip starts in Anaheim, where the Ducks added defensemen Aaron Ward and Lubomir Visnovsky at the expense of Ryan Whitney. The Ducks are presently sitting in 11th in the West, but are just three points behind Detroit for the final playoff spot. Adding the trade of Jean-Sebastian Giguere to Toronto for Jason Blake and Tesa Voskala (who was subsequently traded to Calgary for Curtis McElhinney), the Ducks made a number of impact moves to make a run for the postseason.
The Hawks play the following night at the Kings, who made a few strong moves of their own. Gone is Teddy Purcell, but the Kings added Jeff Halpern and Fredrik Modin. LA is the hottest team in hockey right now, running off an 8-1-1 record in their last ten games.
After a Friday night off, the Hawks spend the night of Sat. March 20 visiting the busiest team at the trade deadline, the Phoenix Coyotes. Peter Mueller is gone, but the Coyotes added Derek Morris, Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak to a team that’s been playing very well of late. The Coyotes are just one point behind LA for the fourth seed in the West, and the added scoring of Wolski and Stempniak should only improve their 25th-ranked offense.
The Hawks will then come home and play the Coyotes again on Tues. March 23, concluding the nine-game gauntlet.
Following the home-and-home against Columbus, the Hawks will play each of their final eight games of the regular season against teams that are either currently in the playoffs or within four points of the eighth spot. Perhaps the best playoff barometer will come on Friday, April 2 when the Blackhawks play in New Jersey against the Atlantic Division-leading Devils.
In all, the Hawks’ final 19 games will prove to be a hard testing ground against teams battling for playoff position. Any questions the Hawks have in net will either be answered or magnified, and any scoring droughts will cost them games. When the regular season ends, Hawks fans should have a very good idea of how far this team can go in the playoffs.