CHICAGO - The Blackhawks are back. On the ice, off the ice. Their faces - most of them young - are everywhere in this sports-crazed city. After missing the playoffs for most of a decade, they've reached the final four of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"The common denominator is to win and we wanted to move the organization ahead," owner Rocky Wirtz said earlier this season. "I see us perennially going to the playoffs and, once we get there, anything can happen."
And the Blackhawks have been winning most of this season, a trend they've extended into their first playoff appearance in seven years. The results so far: they've drawn more than a million fans for their home regular-season and playoff games combined.
Wirtz, who was signing autographs Monday night before the Blackhawks erupted for four third-period goals to eliminate the Vancouver Canucks, made major changes after taking over the team following his father's death in 2007.
He hired marketing guru John McDonough away from the Cubs to be the team president; home games were put on TV, something his dad William Wirtz resisted for years; and the team welcomed back stars like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita as ambassadors.
Finally, the United Center, often half empty just two seasons ago, began to fill up. Now it's so loud that coach Joel Quenneville had trouble yelling out line changes Monday night.
"They're one of the best skilled offensive teams in the National Hockey League. If ever they can keep this team together in this (salary) cap era, the people of Chicago are going to have a very strong team for a very long time," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said after his team's 7-5 loss.
With general manager Dale Tallon drafting players like last year's rookie of the year Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who at age 21 is the team's captain, the Blackhawks showed promise last season, going 40-34-8 but still missing the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 seasons.
After an off-season in which they signed goaltender Cristobal Huet to a US$22.45-million, four-year contract and gave defenceman Brian Campbell a $56.8-million, eight-year deal, one of the Blackhawks' best moves was one that didn't pan out.
They put veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin on waivers before the season, and after he cleared and no deal could be made for him to go elsewhere, he remained with the Blackhawks.
Huet and Khabibulin shared time. But Khabibulin, who won a Stanley cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, has been in net for the post-season and behind his solid play, the Blackhawks have rolled into the conference final for the first time since 1995.
One of the biggest changes occurred four games into the season when popular Hall of Famer Denis Savard was fired as coach and replaced by the veteran Quenneville. The Blackhawks said they needed a more experienced coach in the tough Western Conference.
Quenneville, who had planned to scout this season, gave the team structure and discipline, evidenced by the team's 22 road wins that tied a franchise record. Chicago has gone on to win three more away games in the post-season, including a series clincher at Calgary.
Vancouver opened the scoring in five of the six games, but couldn't hold off the Blackhawks.
"They're going to be good for a long time," Vancouver's Daniel Sedin said. "You look at their young guys and it's unbelievable skill. Overall, that won them the series. Three lines can score on a regular basis and we couldn't keep up."
With veteran scorers like Martin Havlat and Patrick Sharp, defenceman like Campbell, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, and contributors like centre Dave Bolland, left wing Andrew Ladd and hard-hitting Dustin Byfuglien, the Hawks have shown their versatility in victories over Calgary and Vancouver.
Chicago only had 10 players with post-season experience when the playoffs began, but speed and skill has allowed the Blackhawks to more than compensate.
"We got a team that has depth, skill and enthusiasm and they like being around each other. We are progressing in a good way," Quenneville said. "This team can achieve a lot."
The baby-faced Kane, who is just 20, had a hat trick Monday night in the ear-splitting din of the United Center. He now has eight goals in his first playoffs.
Chicago will meet either their longtime rival Detroit or Anaheim - the last two Stanley Cup champions - in the conference finals.
"It would be a fun series for the fans if we play the Red Wings," Kane said. "But if Anaheim wins, we've got home ice. It kinda works both ways."