Three (months) down, three to go

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Three (months) down, three to go

The Blackhawks put together a very good first half, but the very end of it has raised a couple of red flags.

Between the leadership in the dressing room and the coaching staff, this team has a history of finding ways to right its ship when it shows signs of listing. Every team has its rough patches as it goes through a season, and the Blackhawks have matched their season-high three-game losing streak with none other than Detroit coming to town - trying to make it four (especially after losing here last Friday). After riding high through December, one has to wonder if the Dog Days surrounding the All-Star break have come a bit early for this team since that last meeting with the Wings that closed out 2011. We've been hearing "outworked" from players after recent losses. It's nice of them to admit it, but that doesn't really fly with the fans who show up. It's the bar they've set for themselves.

Aside from finding ways to become consistently good on the special teams that have been a roller coaster the first half of the season, allowing the fourth-most goals in the West has to be one of Stan Bowman's and Joel Quenneville's biggest concerns. Heading into the weekend, only the 12th, 14th and 15th teams in the conference (Calgary, Anaheim and Columbus) had allowed more.

It goes beyond the group that has "D" listed next to their names, because there have certainly been enough breakdowns that don't rest solely on their shoulders. The second pairing will be watched closely over the next few weeks, and judging by the revolving door, none of the three candidates to join Steve Montador on the third pairing has consistently distinguished himself. Barring any injury-related needs that must be addressed, that's certainly what Bowman will be shopping for, trying to outbid other teams looking for the same thing as he seeks a trade partner.

The other tough deal he'll seek to find ideally involves finding a second-line center. Short of that, though, just finding a player who'd provide consistent production beyond Toews, Hossa, Sharp and Kane would be a bonus. That quartet has been tremendous through 41 games, even with Patrick Kane not scoring goals at his expected rate. But they can't do it all themselves, all the time. The occasional offensive involvement from the blue line is always welcome. But if you look at the first half numbers of some of the players Bowman and Quenneville have been counting on to raise their stats, it makes you wonder how long the team is willing to wait for something that hasn't happened yet. Sure, the primary roles of some of those players isn't necessarily offense. But you'd have to believe the bosses are looking for more - earning Quenneville's trust, and allowing him to get four lines rolling without having to turn to The Big Four.

In dropping four of these last five games, those four individuals have combined for four goals and 11 points. Recent call-ups Jimmy Hayes and Andrew Shaw and defenseman Brent Seabrook have combined for five of their other six goals in that stretch. Of the seven assists compiled by the other forwards in those five games, Jamal Mayers and the now-suspended Daniel Carcillo have two apiece.

These Blackhawks remain better than a lot of teams in the West. There are a handful of clubs certainly playing better than they have these last ten days, and it doesn't take a long slump to shift the standings and potential playoff seeding. As they showed for most of October and December, they're capable of being the best, even when they feel they're still not playing up to their potential. Who knows - maybe they have issues with odd-numbered months.

Now we get to watch whether this is as challenging as it gets for this team and they again show their resiliency. If that defense and goaltending tighten up again. Whether the special teams get consistent and climb the rankings. If they can get the offensive balance the brass envisioned. And if not, how patient, or bold, management will be with the roster in order to become the best team when April rolls around.

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Avalanche tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Avalanche tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Colorado Avalanche tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Keep it simple.

There is no team in the league that scores fewer goals per game (2.00) and allows more goals per game (3.32) than the Avalanche, who are 4-18-1 in their last 23 games, including 1-7-0 in their past eight. The Blackhawks need to keep it simple, get bodies in front of the net and take advantage on special teams against a team that ranks in the bottom-seven in both the power play and penalty kill.

2. Will Jonathan Toews' success against Colorado continue?

It's been a tough year for the Blackhawks captain, who has only seven goals and 21 points in 37 games, including three points in his last seven. Earlier this season he went 13 consecutive games without a goal, and snapped that on Dec. 23 against Colorado in a 2-1 overtime loss. He recorded a season-high seven shots on goal in that game, and has scored a goal in each of his last four contests against the Avalanche. They seem to be his slumpbuster, so perhaps he'll come through again.

3. Marian Hossa's impact.

In the first meeting of the season, Hossa scored two goals in a 4-0 win over Colorado. In the second, the Blackhawks were without him after he was sidelined with an upper-body injury, and fell 2-1 in overtime. The Blackhawks are nearly at full strength this time around, with Marcus Kruger the lone injured player who's recovering from an apparent hand injury.

4. Nathan MacKinnon.

After a solid showing at the World Cup of Hockey last fall, MacKinnon was considered a strong candidate to have a breakout season with a new head coach that preaches an up-tempo style of play, right up MacKinnon's ally. But he hasn't reached that level yet, with 28 points in 41 games. Not bad, but not great by his standards as the No. 1 overall pick in 2013. He scored the overtime winner and added an assist in last month's victory against Chicago at the United Center.

5. Short shifts.

This will be the third meeting of the year between the two teams, but the first one in Colorado. Due to the high altitude in the Mile-High City, expect Joel Quenneville to distribute the minutes more evenly throughout their four lines and intstruct the Blackhawks to be short with their shifts, no longer than 40 seconds.

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Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

Patrick Kane was summing up the Blackhawks' weekend, one that didn't go well in terms of points.

"Good way to kind of judge ourselves, where we're at," he said Sunday night. "Might be a little bit of a wake-up call to see how good we really are."

Well, in a way, it is. You can't really compare Friday's loss to Washington and Sunday's loss to Minnesota on performance; the Blackhawks didn't show up for the first game and were much better in the second. Nevertheless, it was the same result in each. The Blackhawks' lengthy hold on first place in the Western Conference ended, with the Wild taking over following Sunday's 3-2 victory.

It's not a sound-the-alarm situation, but the Blackhawks are certainly cognizant of the missed opportunity last weekend and that they came up short against the league's best.

Artem Anisimov agreed with Kane's assessment.

"We just need to play better. All four lines need to play better in all areas of the ice. Just be better in the little things," Anisimov said. "Back check, put stick in the right position, box the guy out, short shifts. All little things need to be better."

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Many of the little things that were absent against the Capitals were back against the Wild. But coach Joel Quenneville wasn't happy with mistakes made on goals allowed, especially the first two. And while Kane and the second line were a consistent scoring threat against the Wild, the other three lines weren't. It's a problem that's plagued the Blackhawks a good deal this season, even when they were stringing together victories.

There is no reason to think that, because of this weekend's results, the Blackhawks are going to falter against strong teams. They've done well against others already this season. They beat Montreal earlier this season, when the Canadiens were healthy and steamrolling everyone. They beat the New York Rangers when the Rangers and former Blackhawks backup goaltender Antti Raanta were on their respective hot streaks.

Still, Kane's analysis is correct: This should get the Blackhawks' attention. The Wild have beaten the Blackhawks in eight consecutive regular-season games now and will face them three more times this season. They have two more meetings with the Edmonton Oilers, who beat them soundly in November.

The Blackhawks' long reign atop the Western Conference standings is over. They’re currently second in the Central Division, with an eight-point cushion over the St. Louis Blues. The Blackhawks have done fairly well this season. But this weekend was a reminder that they can be better.

"The game (on Friday) was kind of like a shock to the system thinking maybe you're one of the top teams in the league, or being able to compete with one of the top teams, and we obviously got thoroughly outplayed. We came back (Sunday night). It was pretty even in chances. We might've even had more so, just kind of didn't pull it out," Kane said. "But (when) you've played two of the better teams in the league and lose, there's got to be room for improvement, right?"