There are very, very few must-win games this early in the NHL season, but it would behoove the Chicago Blackhawks to start collecting points now
The 2016-17 NHL season is off to a bit of an unusual start, specifically in the Western Conference. It’s not all that surprising that preseason expectations wouldn’t be met right off the bat, but things look really off-the-wall through teams’ first six or seven games.
The Minnesota Wild lead the Central Division. It was generally thought they’d just tread water this season. The St. Louis Blues are right there with them. Some thought they’d slide this season after losing some key players.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators, two teams many thought would look really good, are in the wild-card picture and out of the postseason entirely right now, respectively. The Pacific Division is even weirder, with Edmonton and Vancouver pacing the field.
All that being said, there’s still so much time for a season to shape out as expected, for the cream of the crop to rise to the top. Most teams have 75 or so games remaining. Way too soon to count out anyone.
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And yet, the Chicago Blackhawks would really be best served by picking up as many wins as possible in the next two weeks. Let’s talk about why.
Upcoming schedule has ups, downs
First, let’s look at who the Blackhawks will oppose in those next two or so weeks. We start this weekend with the New Jersey Devils on the road and Los Angeles Kings at home. You can read about both opponents here, but these teams are essentially off to comparable starts as Chicago, record-wise.
After this, the Blackhawks get some home cooking for a bit. Five of the team’s next seven contests will take place at the United Center — six of eight, if you include the Kings on Sunday.
A rematch with Calgary on Nov. 1 kicks off the post-weekend stretch, with Colorado following. A home-and-home with Dallas and a game in St. Louis rachet up the intensity, as do following tilts at home against Washington and Montreal. The latter of those final two teams hasn’t lost in regulation as of this post.
So things start off relatively smooth for the Blackhawks in this stretch, with the Devils, Kings, Flames and Avs offering better chances at winning than the following five games do.
That being said, the Blackhawks have had the last three days off. They’ve had ample time to work on things that need improvement (penalty kill, powerplay, faceoffs) and for coach Joel Quenneville to hopefully make some minor line tinkers that will temporarily conclude his blender activity.
As a result, the Blackhawks can hopefully come out flying against the Devils and Kings and just get on a nice little roll as they spend a lot of time at the UC. After a “meh” start to the year, it would be a big boost to a youthful team still trying to find its identity.
So, why do I find this stretch of games to be so important?
The circus trip looms
Ah, yes. The annual circus trip. The Blackhawks have actually fared well in recent versions of this, but this year’s group could have some trouble.
I know I just said the three days off should, hopefully, give the Blackhawks a good kick in the butt in the immediate future. But the immediate future includes a bevy of home games. Those are typically easier to get up for and aren’t so much of a slog. The circus trip … it can be a slog.
It’ll be the first major road trip for a fair number of Blackhawks. With the veterans kind of hit or miss so far in regard to carrying the club, that could lead to some issues with collecting points.
After facing Montreal on Sunday, Nov. 13, the Blackhawks hit the road for seven games in a 12-day stretch — against Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles in that order.
That is no easy stretch. The Jets are off to a bad start, but the rest of that crew is tough right now. Calgary, while entirely beatable, has already bested Chicago once this year. The Canucks and Oilers are hot (though they could be cooled by the time the Blackhawks get to them). The Sharks, Ducks and Kings are contenders on some level.
I’m not sure how this group of Blackhawks will respond to the circus trip. Winning the opener and taking it from there is always a good step, but it’s still a ton of time away from home. Some past circus trips have turned really ugly on a dime.
As such, the Blackhawks would be in their best interest to wake up from their current malaise and rack up some points in the next two weeks. The competition on the back end of that stretch is stiff, but if this team was serious about contending in 2016-17, the Stars, Blues, Caps and Canadiens are teams that need to be defeated.
Then, you worry about the circus trip. Hopefully, the Blackhawks will give everyone less to worry about by going into that trip looking strong.