CHICAGO – Patrick Kane quickly called his barber and got his playoff haircut of choice, a mullet. Team captain Jonathan Toews and defenceman Duncan Keith were starting post-season beards.
With a sigh of relief and a big thank you for the Minnesota Wild, the Chicago Blackhawks were ready to board a flight for Vancouver on Monday with a chance to defend their Stanley Cup title.
For a while, it seemed the only travelling they’d be doing would be heading out on vacation.
The Blackhawks were a dejected bunch Sunday after losing to Detroit and failing to pick up a single point that would have put them in the post-season. A few hours later, Minnesota did them a big favour by upsetting Dallas and giving Chicago the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Now it’s time to see what they can do with this second life. They’ll face the top-seeded Canucks, the team with the league’s best record, in a best-of-seven series beginning Wednesday.
Toews was still so upset after the 4-3 loss to Detroit he didn’t even watch the early part of the Stars-Wild game. Just couldn’t. Then he tuned it.
“You go from the feeling of having the idea that your season is over and you’re not going to know what to do with yourself for the next couple of months to Minnesota playing a great game and giving us a chance to play in the playoffs again,” Toews said.
“And then the whole dream of winning a Stanley Cup comes right back in. So it was kind of one of the weirder days I’ve been through in a long time.”
And a pleasing one for the Blackhawks’ young captain. Chicago made it through a season of bumps and travails, struggling after a salary cap-induced roster overhaul that created the exit of several key players from last year’s championship team.
There were injuries to players like Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland and Brian Campbell. Coach Joel Quenneville was hospitalized with an ulcer. And there were bouts of inconsistent and erratic play with missed opportunities and points that the Blackhawks felt they left on the ice, all bringing them to the final day before they could get in with 97 points.
“It wasn’t an easy season, it wasn’t as smooth as it was last year, but we’re here,” Toews said. “I think all you need to do is get in. Whether you are 1 or 8, it doesn’t matter. You still got to win four games to advance.”
For Keith, who logs major minutes and was voted the NHL’s top defenceman a year ago, watching the Stars-Wild game was nerve-racking.
“We definitely feel fortunate they didn’t win but at the same time looking at the standings we deserved to be in,” he said. “You go by points and we had more points than Dallas. We want to make the most of this opportunity.”
The Blackhawks are playing a Vancouver team they’ve had great success the previous two playoffs, ousting the Canucks in the conference semifinals in six games in each of the last two years.
But Vancouver, behind goaltender Roberto Luongo, finished with 117 points and led the NHL in goals scored (262) and fewest allowed (185). The Sedin twins were the Canucks’ top scorers.
“I think we’re familiar with that team. … they had a great season, obviously,” Kane said. “We’ve had some luck against them and hopefully that can continue.”
The teams split four games this season and one of the Blackhawks’ goals will be to get traffic in front of Luongo, something that Dustin Byfuglien did so well the last two post-seasons. But Byfuglien was one of those players lost in the off-season purge and now Chicago will have to find someone else to try and bother one of the NHL’s top goaltenders.
The Blackhawks, who are underdogs in this opening series, say the pressure is on the Canucks after such a stellar regular season.
“We’re in a good position. It really feels like we have nothing to lose, especially after what happened yesterday—maybe being out of the playoffs and getting a second life,” Kane said.
Notes: Quenneville said both Bolland (concussion) and Troy Brouwer (shoulder) made the trip and he was optimistic they might play. Bolland, a centre who is one of Chicago’s most versatile players and a key on the checking line, missed the final 14 games.