We've got some good news and some bad news for Chicago Blackhawks fans.
Let's go with the good news first: Almost a quarter of the way through the season, the Hawks (8-8-2, 18 points) are one of 11 teams in the parity-filled Western Conference that have between 16-21 points. Only St. Louis (27), Los Angeles (24), Winnipeg (23), Nashville (22) and Arizona (7) are outside those parameters.
Now for the (potentially) bad news: The wildly inconsistent Hawks are about to embark on perhaps the most difficult stretch of their schedule -- a 10-game run against teams that had an 83-55-17 record heading into Tuesday's action.
The stretch begins Wednesday against the New York Rangers, who have won six straight, and Saturday against a Penguins squad that would like nothing more than to erase the memories of the 10-1 shellacking the Hawks handed them on opening night.
Other tough-as-nails opponents include the top-of-the-league Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville, Dallas (twice), Los Angeles and Washington.
Sitting at .500 and in the middle of the Central Division is an unfamiliar spot for Joel Quenneville's squad, but it could get far worse if they don't step up their game soon.
"Well, we're not happy with where we're at," Quenneville said. "We had a good start and now we've given away a lot of ground. … We've got a lot of work to do."
Said Patrick Sharp: "You have a good week or a bad week it's going to affect your season at the end of the year. There's a lot of positives to take out of the first (18) games, but there's also a lot of things we can do to be better."
One of those things would be to stop allowing so many odd-man rushes into the defensive zone. It's a malady that must be rectified or Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Viktor Arvidsson, Kyle Turris, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Ovechkin might have their way with the Hawks over the next three weeks.
"That's a commitment to all five guys on the ice that, hey, we don't have the puck, let's get back as quick as possible because everybody's got five guys coming and joining every single rush," Quenneville said. "That's today's game. (Teams are) incorporating their 'D' in every single attack."
The most glaring error against the Devils on Sunday came when Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith focused their attention on Blake Coleman, who zoomed into the Hawks' D zone down the far right side. Kane joined Keith, but he lost track of the fact that Stefan Noesen was coming right down the middle of the ice with nobody on him.
Hawks defenseman Jan Rutta closed in on Noesen, but that left Andy Greene -- a defenseman with just 1 goal on the season -- all alone in front of the net. Corey Crawford had no chance and the Hawks' lead was cut to 4-3 early in the second period of their 7-5 loss.
Greene's goal is just one example of the many breakdowns and lapses in judgment the Hawks have shown. This, plus an offensive rut that the Hawks just pulled out of, are two big reasons why Quenneville's team is 5-8-1 since their red-hot start.
Now it's up to everyone to band together and show the league this team isn't about to let its nine-year playoff run come to an end.
"I think there's got to be urgency from the place we're in right now," Quenneville said. "We've never been in this spot, first of all. … Putting ourselves in the top of the division, top of the conference, has always been there. And now that we're not there, how we handle it is a good test for us. …
"But you can't just talk about it. You've got to do it now."
Blackhawks vs. New York Rangers, 7 p.m. Wednesday
Radio: WGN 720-AM
The skinny: New York started 3-7-2 but has rattled off 6 straight victories. Included in that stretch are impressive wins over Tampa Bay and Columbus. "Hottest team in the game," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "They had a tough stretch, and they turned it around." … Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich and Michael Grabner share the team lead in goals with 8 each. Seven of Grabner's goals have come in the past eight games. … Former Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk has 5 goals and 12 assists. Seven of his assists came on the power play. … After a 12-game drought, a Hawks defenseman has scored in three straight games.
Next: Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena, 6 p.m. Saturday
-- John Dietz