The Chicago Blackhawks must have thought that, finally, this season would be it: The team’s first playoff berth since 2002. A chance at success for the first time since Denis Savard was a player, not a coach.
The Hawks capped the first two months of the 2007-08 season with a 6-1 trouncing of the Phoenix Coyotes to improve to 14-9-2 and further secure their spot in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race.
Before that, even, it was the dawn of a new era for the franchise. Longtime owner Bill Wirtz passed away in September; his son, Rocky, took over the reins. One of Rocky’s first orders of business was to broadcast some of the team’s home games on local TV, a sight that hadn’t been seen on Chicago screens in a long, long time.
And while the off-ice activity helped create a puck-friendlier environment in the Windy City, fans always love a winner and it looked like the Hawks might finally be one.
Led by super rookies Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Chicago played an exciting style and found a winning formula.
Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin played like he was back in Tampa Bay, when he led the Bolts to the Stanley Cup in 2004.
The blueline – too young, injured and overwhelmed in recent years – was maturing and featured future stars Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Cam Barker.
Martin Havlat, forever on the injured reserve since landing in Chicago, managed to stay healthy for an opening stretch. Ditto for Tuomo Ruutu. Patrick Sharp blossomed into a sniper, at even strength and shorthanded. There were sightings of a revived Robert Lang.
All signs pointed to the Hawks in the playoffs and, who knows, maybe they’d even surprise an opponent or two in the springtime showdown.
A little over a month later, cold reality has settled over the Midwest.
The Hawks have been decimated by injuries, including (but certainly not limited to) lengthy absences by Toews, Havlat and Jason Williams (Williams, with 19 points in 20 games, was tied for fifth in team scoring through 45 games.)
The defense corps, too, has been hit hard; only Keith and Seabrook have played every game.
The result? A 6-12-2 stretch that dropped the Haws to 14th place in the West, down among the dregs battling not for playoff glory, but a shot at drafting a superstar. Following two months of much-needed PR repair and image-buffing, the Hawks’ re-invention of themselves is turning into yet another flightless season.
This time, though, it’s different.
This time, there’s a sense the Hawks truly have turned the corner as a franchise, despite six weeks of floundering.
This time, it feels like all the losing really is due to all the ill-timed injuries. The prospects are developing into NHL players, and five years of top draft picks are coming to fruition.
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