Biggest Test Yet to Come For Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks will face one of the biggest tests of the final third of the regular season when they visit the best team in the Eastern Conference at Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers.

This will be the first of two meetings between the teams this season. The last time the clubs faced each other, the Rangers finished off the Hawks 3-2 at the Garden in November of last season. 

Chicago is in the midst of their worst slump of the season, having gone winless in their last nine games. Over that span, the Hawks have been outscored an astounding 38-19. It's safe to say that Chicago isn't losing because they "can't catch a break."

Their struggles lie in the fact that they are struggling to keep the opposition from producing offensively and understandably, their own offense can't match such a high total of goals-allowed.

That's the easy part to understand. 

The complication of comprehending exactly why the Blackhawks went from one of the best teams in the league earlier this season to now fighting to hold on to their severely threatened sixth place spot in the Western Conference playoff race, well, it gets a little hairy. 

Chicago's special teams play, coupled with their current lack of offense and suspect defensive play in front of some barely mediocre goaltending leads one to surmise that the Hawks desperately need some kind of seasonal mulligan. A refresher of sorts.

A trade? Perhaps, though not necessarily. Something has to give at this point for this struggling club and maybe it will indeed require a matchup against one of the league's top team's to serve as a wake-up call. 

The Blackhawks tenacious effort and strong all-around performance in their last loss to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night provided at least some form of a bright spot for the team to build on heading into tonight's game. If the Hawks can come out in the same form as they did against their division rivals, they will give themselves a great chance to break this pulling-teeth of a slump.

Despite the fact that there is a good chance the Blackhawks will be able to avoid All-star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, his backup, Martin Biron, has been very good in relief of his starter. Biron has a 10-2 record this season and posts a .919 save percentage.

The New York Rangers, on the whole, have been playing exceptional hockey of late, going 8-1-1 in their last ten games and defeated the defending Stanley Cup Champions, Boston Bruins, on Tuesday night 3-0. Even despite not playing what the Rangers may have considered their best game, Lundqvist and Co. kept one of the league's best offensive teams off of the score sheet for the entire 60 minutes of play.

And that is why the Rangers have been so successful this year. The players have bought so deeply into their Coach's system that even when their team comes away with a 3-0 shutout victory, they recognize what needs improvement and work to fix it. The New York Rangers are currently playing on an entirely different level than a lot of teams in the NHL, and it's showing. Of course, allowing a meager 110 goals at this point in the season tends to help your club win a lot of games as well. 

The Chicago Blackhawks can approach this next game in one of two ways:

They can take their bitter loss against the Nashville Predators in a discouraging fashion and fail to replicate the effort they showed in that game.

Or...

They can use that loss to the Predators as a means for moving forward and improving on an effort that was very close to breaking them out of an eight game slump on Tuesday night. If they can set the bar higher than it's hung the first of the last eight games or so, it will greatly help them to dig themselves out of this current landslide. 

Keep An Eye Out For - 

The Chicago Defense: With so many struggles of late and now Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador side-lined with injuries, it will be interesting to see how Coach Q spreads out the minutes along the blue line. 

Patrick Kane: One of the team's most prolific scorers has been quiet lately...too quiet. Look for him to break out of his offensive slump in his return to his home state. 

Ryan Callahan: The Rangers captain has a goal scoring streak of 6 goals in his last 4 games. 

Injuries - 

Hjalmarsson and Montador remain out with injuries for the Hawks. Ruslan Fedotenko is not expected to play again for the Rangers. 

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