PHILADELPHIA -- The Chicago Blackhawks bagged enough points through the first three months of the season that they haven't really had to face a true gut-check moment yet, the kind a team can look back on months later as a turning point, either positively or negatively.
That changes now.
Fresh off a 3-2 overtime loss in a physical, grinding game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, the Blackhawks return home to United Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2) to face the St. Louis Blues, the NHL's best team according to the standings and, well, the Blackhawks too.
"Right now, they're the best team in the League," Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said. "It's going to be a fun game, a good challenge. They've got a lot of depth on that team. It seems like they've been building that team, that same group of guys, for three or four years now, and you know they're going to be hungry."
The Blackhawks haven't beaten the Blues in three tries this season, and even with the point against the Flyers and the Colorado Avalanche losing Tuesday, they're still third in the Central Division because of tiebreakers. They're not in any danger of fading out of the race, not with a 16-point cushion over the Phoenix Coyotes, currently the second wild-card team, but the Blackhawks could use a quality win against an elite opponent to remind them that they're still elite too.
The Blues have won three in a row and eight of their past nine (8-0-1). They haven't lost in regulation this month. They became the first team to reach 100 points this season with their 3-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Monday. Ryan Miller is 7-0-1 with .933 save percentage and 1.61 goals-against average since being traded to St. Louis.
"Hey, find a way," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who is one win shy of 700 for his career. "Obviously, it'll be a huge game for us. It'll be exciting to get to play these guys. I see our team responding and being excited about this game."
"We know how good they [the Blues] are as a team, they're playing well," added captain Jonathan Toews. "It comes down to how prepared we are and how bad we want it. That's what it's all about."
The results suggest Chicago hasn't wanted it all that badly since the calendar flipped to 2014, but it's still too hard to determine if that's an alarming trend for a championship-caliber team or simply a natural lull that should have been expected from a team fresh off a championship last season and a remarkable 42-game stretch to start this one.
The answer might be easier to figure out after the game Wednesday, but it all depends on how the Blackhawks respond.
"If we thought the game [Tuesday night] was tough and physical, it's going to be a whole other story [Wednesday] night," Toews said. "So we've got to turn the page and be ready and play like we know we can."
Chicago was doing that at least through Jan. 1. It was 28-7-7, good for 63 points, five more than the Blues at that point. But the Blackhawks are 11-8-8 since, including 3-4-3 against Western Conference teams that currently occupy a playoff position, and have dropped eight points behind the Blues.
The rocky second half after a strong first half might be passable for a young team going through some growing pains and trying to establish itself as a playoff contender; it's eyebrow-raising for a team that has won the Stanley Cup twice in the past four seasons.
And the Blackhawks know it, which is why the game Wednesday against St. Louis is so important to them. It represents an opportunity to smooth out the bumpy ride they've been on for what has been far too long for a team with this kind of championship pedigree.
"It's getting close enough now to playoffs where you can sense the intensity," Keith said. "Obviously, we'd like playoffs to start tomorrow, and we would be first, that would be ideal, but we have to understand there's a lot at stake here still with home-ice advantage. We saw last year home-ice advantage helped us out a lot. That's what our goal is."
And that's just another reason why it's gut-check time in Chicago. It's been awhile.