Just two short months ago, the Chicago Blackhawks were on top of the Western Conference and looked like a legitimate contender for an historic Stanley Cup title.
It's a much different picture with 12 games left in the season.
The Blackhawks lost 5-0 to the Los Angeles Kings on Monday night and have dropped four of five overall, including three in a row against potential playoff opponents. After a pair of road losses to St. Louis and Dallas, Chicago yielded a pair of goals in an 18-second span of the first period and never recovered against Los Angeles.
The defending NHL champions are 9-10-2 since they ripped off a franchise-record 12 straight wins at the end of December and into January.
"We've had a tougher schedule," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We've had some tough games and I think during this stretch here our penalty killing hasn't been great. Some nights they could have won us some games with getting the job done and giving up some timely goals that got their team going.
"But that was a stretch there that we really made a lot of hay and put ourselves in a great spot. Now we're not taking advantage of it, which is disappointing."
The slide has dropped Chicago (41-23-6) into third place in the tough Central Division. The Blues also lost Monday night and are tied with the Stars at 91 points apiece, followed by the Blackhawks at 88.
Chicago has a home game left against each of the division leaders, so there is plenty of time. But the standings are less important to the Blackhawks than their play heading into the postseason.
"It seems like for whatever reason, the season's been up and down throughout the whole year," forward Patrick Kane said. "You go on stretches where you win 12 in a row, and we've got this little stretch going right now. Obviously we want to shore that up before playoffs, and make sure we're going in there feeling consistent about our game."
The second line of Kane, Artem Anisimov and rookie Artemi Panarin has been one of the most dangerous groups in the league for most of the year. But it has fallen on hard times of late.
Kane, who leads the NHL with 89 points, has been held to one goal in his last five games. Panarin has been kept off the scoresheet in six of his last nine games. Anisimov has one goal and three assists in his last 14 appearances.
Quenneville tried Kane on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Andrew Ladd for a while against the Kings, but nothing worked against Jonathan Quick in his 41st career shutout.
"That four-line rotation we always talk about (that) makes us successful hasn't been in place over this stretch," Quenneville said.
Ladd returned to Chicago in one of a flurry of deals by the Blackhawks before the trade deadline, and some of their recent woes could be attributed to chemistry issues. Dale Weise's arrival was held up by a visa issue, and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff has been in and out of the lineup.
Veteran forward Marian Hossa just returned last week after missing nine games because of a lower-body injury, adding another wrinkle to the lines and special teams. It could be a while before everyone gets used to each other.
"Collectively as a team, I think everyone's to blame," Toews said. "It's a tough couple games, but we've seen that before. We've been through that before. We know not to overreact, start second-guessing ourselves and really letting that lack of confidence really creep into our minds."
The Blackhawks finished last season with four consecutive losses, then went on to win the title. They dropped three of four during a March swoon in 2013 and hoisted the Cup that year, too.
The Kings lost to the Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals in 2013, and then eliminated Chicago at the same juncture in an epic seven-game series in 2014. Even with Chicago sputtering down the stretch, Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty said the playoff matchup could happen against this year.
"If you ask me, I could see them coming out of their side and going all the way to the conference finals and obviously that's what we want to do, too," Doughty said. "There's a good chance we could meet up at some point and if we do it will be a fun series."
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap