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Undefeated Blackhawks gear up for tough road trip

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks are zipping along right now, with all signs pointing toward more success.

What's directly ahead, however, is a pretty tall order -- even for a team as hot as Chicago (6-0-0), which set a new franchise record Sunday for wins to start a season by beating the rival Detroit Red Wings.

After playing their first six games in just nine days (four on the road), the Blackhawks will start a tough six-game road trip Wednesday against the Minnesota Wild (3-2-1) in the second installment of NBC Sports Network’s "Rivalry Night" series.

Chicago will be on the road for 14 days while "Disney on Ice" occupies United Center -- and a fairy tale ending isn't guaranteed for the Blackhawks. This trip likely will be a good measuring stick.

"It's going to be a huge test," forward Marian Hossa, who has at least a point in five of the first six games and has five goals, said. "We are pleased with how we started, but that was just the first six games. [We're trying] not to make huge deal about it, because it's only [the] beginning of the season and we know how important these games on the road are going to be. It will be a real test and when we come back home after the six games, we're going to really know where we are."

They're hoping to be exactly where they were when they left the Windy City on Tuesday -- leading the League in points and finding ways to win games they probably would have lost the last couple seasons.


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Chicago has looked impressive at points during its remarkable winning streak by getting strong efforts on all fronts -- offense, defense and the goaltending of Corey Crawford, the NHL's current Second Star of the Week. They also have gotten some fortunate bounces that have helped them stay unbeaten; they're going to need even more to keep it going.

After playing the Wild -- a team that will be playing the tail end of back-to-back games -- Chicago faces its own tough back-to-back set in Vancouver and Calgary this weekend. The Blackhawks then will head to San Jose, Phoenix and Nashville next week.

It's quite a challenge when you consider that four of those five teams qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, and the one that didn't, the Calgary Flames, missed the playoffs by one spot in the standings.

This appears to be a different Blackhawks team, however, despite having many of the same faces. They have more confidence than in the past two seasons, and more experience. Along with those things has come more "quality depth," as Chicago coach Joel Quenneville calls it.

That's why the Blackhawks are looking at this upcoming trip as more of an opportunity than a potential pitfall.

"For sure, it's a tough trip … no doubt about that," forward Viktor Stalberg, who's playing his third season in Chicago, said. "There are some good teams we're playing, but we like to think we're one of those elite teams in the League and that they should be more worried about playing us than we should be worried about playing them. We're happy with how we've been playing so far and we'd like to keep that same mentality on the road."

Quenneville also would be happy if his team's mentality stayed at the same level. Rather than trying to get too fancy with all of its offensive talent, the Blackhawks have taken a simpler approach at both ends of the rink and brought more of a "road game" mentality into every contest.

Why change now?

"I think we want to play the same way," Quenneville said Tuesday, after just the second full practice for his team since the season began. "Every game's going to be like a playoff game. Everybody's going to be excited about playing us, but we find that [in] every game that we're involved with or not. Things are like a playoff game [this season] … four-point games with a lot of swings in the standings. It's early in the season, but it's really not as far as the meaning of the games."

That makes this trip seem even more important, which is why Quenneville carefully is monitoring ice time for his top players during a jam-packed schedule. He’s trying to make sure his players get enough rest and treatment off the ice, and so far there only have been a couple of injuries.

Talented rookie Brandon Saad is filling in for physical, grinding forward Daniel Carcillo (out indefinitely, knee) on Chicago's top line, while veteran third-pair defenseman Michal Rozsival is listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury sustained last week in Dallas.

Rozsival, who has played well with young defenseman Nick Leddy when healthy, is expected to be on the ice for Wednesday's morning skate, but veteran newcomer Sheldon Brookbank will be ready to go for a third straight game if Rozsival is unable to play.

"You need to have depth on [defense] to go anywhere," Brookbank, who signed with Chicago as a free agent last summer, said. "Right now it looks like the [defense] is pretty solid. Hopefully we can just continue to play well and go from there."

No matter how their longest road swing of the season turns out, this trip could play a big role in how the rest of their season plays out. After returning to United Center on Feb. 12, Chicago will play 22 of its final 36 games at home and have almost half of its 24 road games in the books.

"It's awesome actually," Stalberg said. "If we can do a good job and win some games here on this road trip, we should be in pretty good shape coming home."

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