The Blackhawks might as well play like they face an elimination game in the playoffs. The situation feels that dire right now.
One game under .500 in mid-November in the long NHL regular season shouldn't normally be panic time. But for the Stanley Cup champs, the utter mediocrity of their start sets all the wrong tempo and provides all the wrong messages.
And if it continues much longer, the Hawks will be fighting for their lives just to be an eighth seed in the Western Conference.
That's why this weekend is their Moment of Truth, advanced from all the way in April or May to 10 days before Thanksgiving. They'll have to win both games convincingly, Saturday night in Nashville and Sunday night at home against Anaheim, to re-establish their defending-titlist cachet. Anything less is more of the same.
Two consecutive 2-1 losses at home and two defeats at the United Center in the young season already to the Edmonton Oilers suggests a team not ready for prime time. Despite all the brave pre-season talk about all the salary cap-influenced newcomers easily blending into team chemistry, the Hawks are a team in drift. But the worst aspect of the ennui experienced so far is veterans, not recent arrivals, are the underperformers who have allowed the Hawks to waste decent-to-excellent goaltending and led to a series of third-period cave-ins.
Center Dave Bolland's return from the injured list, announced Friday, will help. When healthy, Bolland stirs things up and makes his linemates better. The third line should stabilize with his presence.
But, overall, the Blackhawks do not have the luxury of waltzing through the regular season. They have a target on their back anyway. Now opponents sense the chance to bury them if they're not going to fight back with clutch goals and inspired play.
Already the cynics are foretelling doom. Some say they'll be fortunate to get in the playoffs as a seventh or eighth seed. A few even predict disaster in missing the postseason altogether. Boos have replaced some of the championship-slaked cheers at the United Center.
It's never too early to be getting too late. And even though the season is still in mid-morning, the clock is running down for the defending Stanley Cup champions.