There are games on a schedule that stand out among the 82, nights that allow your team to look in the mirror and find out who they really are.
For the Chicago Blackhawks, that game is against the visiting Detroit Red Wings on Friday night. The clash between the division rivals at United Center will tell us much about the defending Stanley Cup champions. Is it the team that seemingly had turned the corner in November, or the teetering club that got swept in a home-and-home against the Colorado Avalanche this week?
We'll soon find out. The Red Wings are once again the class of the West, and everyone's barometer game.
"We've had some epic battles against them," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman told ESPN.com. "They're a great team. You have to find a consistency to your game, which they seem to have. ... I think in some ways they bring out the best in us, at least that's the hope. Because if you're not ready to play against them, they can make you look pretty silly."
I had a nice chat with Bowman on Thursday night. He was honest about his team's season so far and very much resolute in his belief that the Cup champs have what it takes to make this another terrific season.
Sitting 12th in the Western Conference on Friday morning (albeit tied in points with eighth-place Los Angeles) is about as bad as one could have predicted, even with all the salary-cap purges this past summer.
"This is not where we wanted to be," Bowman said. "We're not pleased with our record [16-14-3], but you can't feel sorry for yourself. We can be better. I think we've underachieved. I think we're a better team than we've shown.''
The feedback I've received from Hawks fans this week after the two-game set against Colorado was about as negative as I've seen in a long time from that lot.
"Up until the last two games when we kind of stubbed our toe, we were going along pretty good, I would say, for about 4-5 weeks," said Bowman. "We were playing good hockey, we got our identity back as a team."
I reached the same conclusion as Bowman a few weeks back. When the Hawks completed a six-game road trip (4-2-0) in late November, which included big wins in Vancouver and Los Angeles, there was a sense that the club had turned the corner, that all the new faces finally found their roles, that a team gutted by the cap finally came together.
"That was the case, really, up until the game Monday in Colorado when it fell apart," said Bowman. "It's coincided with us missing some big guns, but we've got to show that those two games this week were the aberration, because we were going along good. I thought we had turned the corner on that kind of hockey, but the last two games were reminiscent of early in the year."
Two wins in five December games has halted, at least somewhat, the sense of optimism from late November. To be fair, not many teams would keep on truckin' without players like Marian Hossa (out since Nov. 27) and Patrick Kane (out since Dec. 5).
"They're getting very close," Bowman said of the star duo. "We play Friday, Sunday and Wednesday. I would say they would play in some of those games at some point. They're close to coming back, but at the same time, we don't want to rush them back."
In the meantime, Bowman has worked the phones. The holiday trade freeze goes into effect Sunday and lasts through Dec. 27.
"I've talked to some teams recently," Bowman said. "I wouldn't say anything is imminent. We have some ideas, but there's not a lot happening right now [around the league]. It's the same thing I'm sure you've heard a million times: The teams that have cap space don't have a lot of money to spend, and the teams that could spend money don't have any cap space. So what happens is a stalemate. Like everybody else, we're waiting to see where it's going to go."
Perhaps closer to the Feb. 28 trade deadline is a more reasonable time frame for the Hawks to pull the trigger; and when they do, it'll hopefully be for a defenseman.
"Yes, that's the one area I think we are looking at," said Bowman. "A defenseman that could log some minutes and move the puck."
Bowman said another center would be on the target list next, noting that Patrick Sharp has been terrific down the middle this season, but the team prefers him at the wing. (In a depth move, the team signed center Ryan Johnson on Friday to a one-year, $500,000 deal.)
The Hawks GM also has work to do on the Brent Seabrook front. After signing Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith to long-term extensions last season, it's now Seabrook's turn. He is set to become a restricted free agent July 1. As we saw with Niklas Hjalmarsson this past summer, an offer sheet from a rival team is always possible.
"We've begun things there, we started about a month ago," Bowman said of Seabrook contract talks. "It's going at a slow pace. We obviously want him to stay here. It's a very good situation for both sides; it's just a challenge to make the numbers work. Nothing's been done yet, but we're certainly working on it."
In the meantime, the work on the ice continues -- a big game against Detroit on Friday night, followed by another tough test Sunday against the Los Angeles Kings.
"We are a confident group," said Bowman. "We believe in one another. The core of our team is still here and they're very good players. We have faith in them and in the coaching staff to make the necessary adjustments and get us going."