When the Chicago Blackhawks won their final home game of 2017 at United Center on Dec. 17, they extended their winning streak to five games. They were starting to play better hockey and gain some traction in the Central Division.
Then they went on the road, and any momentum they gained during the five-game streak vanished. They lost to the Dallas Stars and New Jersey Devils before the Christmas break, then to the Vancouver Canucks in their first game back. Chicago failed to hold a 3-1 third-period lead but defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 in overtime, then had to come back from down 3-0 to get a point in an overtime loss at the Calgary Flames on New Year's Eve.
As the Blackhawks prepare for their first game of 2018, against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV), they enter January the same way they did December: trying to find consistency, needing a whole lot more points, and relying on their goaltender (whoever that may be) too often.
Why has it been so difficult for the Blackhawks (18-14-6) to sustain a steady pace this season?
"It's hard to say," forward Richard Panik said. "I think we have some games [when] we play really good and we've lost them, and we have bad ones that we've won. We need to find something to keep rolling and get on a winning streak and go from there. We had a good stretch before Christmas and then we had two bad games right before it. I think now we just want to build on our last game and go forward."
Losing goaltender Corey Crawford and center Artem Anisimov, each on injured reserve with upper-body injuries, doesn't help. Jeff Glass, a 32-year-old rookie, has filled the goaltending vacancy well, helping the Blackhawks get the victory against Edmonton and the one point in the overtime loss against Calgary in his first two NHL games.
Video: CHI@EDM: Glass kicks out pad to deny McDavid
But here's a bigger issue: The players the Blackhawks count on for goals aren't scoring them. Panik, who had 22 goals last season and was a steady part of the top line, hasn't scored since Oct. 21 (25 games). Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad each scored against Calgary on Sunday; prior to that, each had gone six straight games without a point. They combined for seven goals in December. Defenseman Duncan Keith, who had six goals and 47 assists last season, has no goals and 19 points this season.
Patrick Kane, who leads the Blackhawks in points (38), goals (16) and assists (22), has been the most consistent veteran forward, scoring six goals and assisting on five in his past nine games. But as aggravating as the ups and downs have been this season, Kane said the Blackhawks aren't the only ones experiencing them.
"You look at the League, it seems a lot of teams are in the same position we are, whether you can get hot or cold at certain times. Just every game is so tough," Kane said. "It's tough to bring you're A game for 82 straight games, and then there are those teams that seem to be head and shoulders above everyone right now. That's what we're trying to get to. We're trying to play the way the coaches want us to play, but at the same time get some confidence and hopefully get on a big run here, get hot going into the playoffs."
Video: CHI@EDM: Kane dangles, stuffs home OT winner
Sure, 82 great games aren't possible. But the Blackhawks haven't found that 60-minute effort, the one coach Joel Quenneville talks about, very often this season. Sometimes slow starts have been the culprit. At other times, they've struggled in the second period, getting outscored 35-29. Their power play is 29th in the NHL at 15.0 percent, its lowest percent since the 2006-07 season (11.8 percent).
The Blackhawks will play eight of their 12 January games at United Center, a welcome change after spending the past two weeks on the road. They've won their past four games at United Center, and finding more success at home could bolster the Blackhawks' confidence. But venue only matters so much. The Blackhawks are last in the Central Division with 42 points, 11 behind the division-leading Winnipeg Jets, and four points out of the final playoff spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. December was decent. But January looms large.
"It's all tough games, whether you're on the road or at home, no matter who you're playing. They're important points, especially with the position we're in," Kane said. "It's going to be a dogfight to get into the playoffs."
NHL.com correspondent Aaron Vickers contributed to this report.