As the Blackhawks embark on their most unique road trip of the season - starting and ending in Winnipeg over an eight-day stretch with a trio of Western Canada tilts sandwiched between - it's also their most important stretch to date, not only in deciding where the team potentially stands at the end of the season, but also in where they stand heading into the NHL trade deadline in just over two week's time.
"Every game now is a playoff game pretty much and every game you're going to get your opponent's best," forward Drake Caggiula said ahead of the trip. "Everyone's fighting for those points and I don't think it really matters who we play, we have to approach it like it's life or death every game ... We've got to take one step at a time and be as fully prepared as we can because its playoff hockey."
"It really is," Robin Lehner agreed. "You can't really afford to lose two in a row right now. You have to try to get points. Every game is very important, so you definitely have to tighten up your game and really stick to the details and work really hard. (We) can't really afford these let-down games right now."
Video: Lehner on upcoming road trip, playoff mentality
Just over three weeks ago, Bowman spoke to Blackhawks.com's Chris Kuc about his approach to the team being buyers at the deadline, possibly adding a piece or two in a push to return to the postseason, or sellers, gathering assets for the future if the postseason seems less likely:
"It will be more apparent when we get closer where we fit in the standings. I guess it's a feel more than a mathematical thing," Bowman said. "I think it's more where do you see your team going and what's the proper move at that time? It's hard to answer right now ... Things tend to crystalize over the next five to six weeks. We could probably have a better conversation closer to that date and see where we stand."
In the eight games since, Chicago has gone 5-1-2 and gotten back key pieces in Dylan Strome, Brandon Saad and Caggiula. They're even more so in the thick of things in the playoff hunt, sitting just two points out of a Wild Card spot ahead of Saturday's slate of games. And all five upcoming games against teams within striking distance above them in the standings. Four of the five are within four points of Chicago and the Blackhawks holding games in-hand on three of those.
Video: Colliton on playoff mentality
The trip will all but solidify where the Blackhawks are with just one week and three games left until the deadline when they return. A continued stretch of road success and the team is in prime position to fight for a postseason spot in the remaining weeks. But a run of disappointing results over the next week-plus could see Chicago needing to climb a big hill in the playoff race and possibly casting an eye towards the future.
"I look at it as it's a fun situation to be in," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We're going on the road and all five of the games are huge. I think as players and coaches and the team, we want to be in that situation. You want to be in those games.
"You wake up this morning and it's a practice day and sometimes practice days for the players, it can be a drag, but for me on a day like this it's exciting because we're in position to play important, big games and that's what we want," he added. "What we need to do on this trip is play well, have good performances so we get the points we need to stay in the race and hopefully raise our nose above the crowd."