The calendar has officially flipped to March and the Blackhawks are sitting in a playoff spot. Nobody could've predicted that before the season started, at least not anyone outside the Chicago locker room.
But the Blackhawks are about to embark on their toughest stretch of the season beginning Thursday and we'll have a pretty good idea of where they might finish in the standings by the end of it.
Eleven of the next 15 games will be against Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay, which are the three teams that occupy the top three seeds in the Central Division. The first three games will be at home against the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, who outscored the Blackhawks 10-3 in the first two games of the season.
"We’re excited for the challenge," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "Big points and home games here against an excellent team. We’re going to take these days to prepare. I think we are better. Don’t need to play the games to know that, but to me it’s an opportunity to get points. We’ve said all year, the goal is to improve continuously as the year goes on, and this could be another step for us.
The Blackhawks feel they've come a long way since then and they clearly have. Just look at the raw numbers.
The Blackhawks started the season 0-3-1 with a -11 goal differential in their first four games. They've turned things around dramatically and are 12-4-3 with a +17 goal differential in their last 19 contests. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs (30) have more points than the Blackhawks (27) over that span.
"The first two games, we had like six rookies getting their first games against the former champions," Nikita Zadorov said. "It’s always hard like that. We’re going to be way more prepared than we were the first two games of the season. It takes time to get to know your system, get to know your teammates, how to play together and also get yourself going. We’re on a roll right now, we feel really confident to go into this three-game series, so we’ll see what we can do."
The Blackhawks have taken significant strides since the first week of the season, but even they're curious to see just how far they've come and where they stand among the NHL's best.
"It’ll be a good test for us," Malcolm Subban said. "It didn’t go the way we wanted that first road trip, but hopefully we can continue to build here and have a different outcome."
The other four games squeezed into this stretch are against Nashville and Dallas, which has the fifth-best points percentage in the division. The Blackhawks are fourth with 28 points and a percentage of .609.
But the focus right now is on Tampa Bay, taking it one series at a time and then see where the cards fall by the end of the 15-game slate.
"I think everyone knows the schedule," Colliton said. "There’s been a lot of discussion about that on the outside. I think from the inside, we just have to focus on the next game, take these three as a mini playoff series, that’s all we should be looking at. We shouldn’t look past that at all. Let’s be really good in these games here, and we’ll worry about the rest of the schedule when it comes."
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