CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks began last season in Los Angeles, where they watched the Kings celebrate their Stanley Cup title, and then cruised to an emphatic 5-2 victory that set the tone for their own championship run.
Now they are looking for another strong start, while Washington is hoping to do what the Blackhawks did last season when the Capitals visit Chicago on Tuesday.
“It’s something we were talking about today is that I felt the start of our season last year put us in the perfect spot for the whole season,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said after the Blackhawks practiced on Monday. “It was that first period or the first win, but that seemed to just start it off on the right foot.
“I think it’s something we’re trying to prioritize going into this season is there’s a lot of things you can achieve, hey, let’s worry about getting off to a great start, and that’s our focus.”
It’s hard to imagine the Blackhawks putting together a better start than they did last season, when they set an NHL record by recording at least one point in the first 24 games. Chicago completed the first half of the lockout-shortened schedule before its first regulation loss.
The Blackhawks used the opening surge to accumulate the most points in the NHL, and then beat the Boston Bruins in six games for their second Stanley Cup title in four seasons. They are looking forward to celebrating that memorable season before the game against Washington, but they also know what an impressive opener can do for the rest of the campaign.
“It’s going to be awesome, at home. It’s going to be a great feeling,” said forward Marian Hossa, who missed much of training camp with an upper-body injury, but is expected to play against the Capitals. “But right after, we have to get focused on the game.”
While Chicago got off to a fast start last season, Washington stumbled out of the gate.
The Capitals dropped nine of their first 11 games, including a 6-3 loss at Tampa Bay in the opener. Led by NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin, they closed with a flourish to make it to the playoffs, but they lost to the New York Rangers in seven games in the first round.
“We’re not too scared of having failure at the start because we know we’re too good for that,” goalie Braden Holtby said.
Of course, Ovechkin is back after winning his third Hart Trophy. The Capitals also have Nicklas Backstrom and dangerous defenceman Mike Green to help with the scoring load. Center Brooks Laich is healthy again after missing much of last season with a groin injury.
But the biggest difference could be the second year for coach Adam Oates, who had little time to prepare his team last season due to the lockout.
“Hopefully we start better than we did last year and if we do, that gives us a little bit of luxury to rest guys at times, to piece the puzzle together a little differently,” Oates said. “But you’ve got to wait and see if that happens. You need the luxury to experiment. You’ve got to be ahead of the curve.”
Quenneville knows exactly what Oates is talking about.
After the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the team was dismantled in part due to salary-cap issues. It took some time for the new group to come together the following season, and the title defence ended with a first-round playoff loss to Vancouver.
This time around, most of the key performers are back from last season, and Quenneville said he was impressed with their commitment and focus during training camp.
“I feel this group, they’re ready for the next challenge,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in Arlington, Va., contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap