CHICAGO – For six weeks, the Chicago Blackhawks tasted a different vintage of hockey. The playoff variety was rugged, frenetic, sweet at first and then not so pleasant at the end of their run at the Stanley Cup.
The NHL’s youngest team, averaging just more than 25 years in age, made the franchise’s first foray into the post-season in seven years. The Blackhawks beat the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks and headed to the Western Conference final for the first time since 1995.
But the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings proved too tough, ousting Chicago in five games and wrapping it up with Wednesday night’s 2-1 overtime win – the third game of the series to go to an extra period.
“It’s pretty hard kick to the ribs. It stinks quite a bit, but maybe it’s the motivation and experience we needed,” said 21-year-old captain Jonathan Toews.
“This is a career experience right here. Something than definitely helps you down the road. We know it’s a long way back here.”
The Blackhawks’ season had barely started when Denis Savard was fired as coach after only four games, a move that left last year’s rookie of the year Patrick Kane in tears. Joel Quenneville, who was supposed to scout and get away from the bench, took over. And eventually, the Blackhawks took off.
They put together a franchise-record nine-game winning streak in December, one that was eventually ended by – who else? – the Red Wings. Two days later they faced the Red Wings again in an outdoor game at Wrigley Field.
Detroit won again, but a national TV audience on New Year’s Day got a glimpse of a young team with speed and skating skill that had evolved into a force.
Chicago finished 46-24-12, second in the Central Division to the Red Wings, and the young Hawks tied a team record with 22 road wins.
When the playoffs began, the Blackhawks had only 10 players with post-season experience.
They were able to overcome the physical play of Calgary and the talent of Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo for six-game series victories over the Flames and Canucks. And they beat Vancouver despite trailing in each of their four victories, capturing the clincher on the strength of the 20-year-old Kane’s first career hat trick.
But the Red Wings, who won four of six regular-season meetings, showed how difficult it is to get to the next level.
“These kids have been great all year long. They matured. They developed,” Quenneville said of his team.
“We got to find out what playoff hockey is all about. You know, the best measuring stick, we went up against the best … We should learn something from them.”
Chicago played the last two games without goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and most of the final three in the series without points leader Martin Havlat, who never recovered after taking a hard hit from Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall in Game 3.
Both the 36-year-old Khabibulin, who played well in the post-season, and Havlat are unrestricted free agents. Khabibulin was put on waivers in the pre-season after the Blackhawks signed Cristobal Huet to a four-year, US$22.45-million contract last summer. But when no deal could be made to move Khabibulin, he stayed with the Blackhawks and eventually became the No. 1 goaltender for the playoffs until he was hurt in Game 3.
Huet stepped in and played well in the remainder of Game 3 – Chicago’s only win in the series in overtime – then was shaky in Detroit’s 6-1 win in Game 4 before a stellar 44 saves in the Red Wings’ clincher.
Detroit coach Mike Babcock threw out some compliments for the Blackhawks after his team had ousted them.
“I just think the last couple years in particular, they’ve really come a long, long way. Guys you didn’t even know their name, now are household names. Legitimate NHL players,” he said.
“I think Kane is a great player, don’t get me wrong. But to me the guy you build the franchise around is the Toews kid. … He just keeps coming and keeps coming.”
The Blackhawks brought hockey back to the front pages in Chicago. After a revamping by owner Rocky Wirtz, including the decision to televise home games, the United Center was packed. The Blackhawks drew more than 1 million fans during the regular season and playoffs.
Kane, who had a rough time against Detroit’s stiff defence before getting his first goal of the series Wednesday night, said the Hawks want to keep moving up.
“The only result we want from now on is to get to the Cup,” he said.