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Young Chicago Blackhawks set higher goals for new season

CHICAGO - The short off-season was an eventful one for the Chicago Blackhawks. Four months after they skated off after a loss in the Western Conference final, they're ready to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

They've won over their city, that's for sure. On a Saturday night when college football and baseball were in full swing, the Blackhawks sold nearly 20,000 tickets to a pre-season game. They open the season against Florida in back-to-back games in Heilsinki, Finland, on Oct. 2-3.

Goals for coach Joel Quenneville and his young and spirited team are simple.

"We want to look to try to win our division," Quenneville said. "If you can be ahead of Detroit, you've accomplished a lot."

The Blackhawks finished second in the Central Division of the West to the Red Wings last season before losing the conference final to Detroit in five games, three which went to overtime. Like most teams in the West, getting past Detroit is one of the season goals.

Quenneville figures his team is no longer considered a "maybe" in the West.

"We feel we're going to get challenged more than we were last year. And so we've got to be expecting with a younger team to improve regularly here," said Quenneville, who took over four games into last season when Denis Savard was fired.

With the NHL's youngest team a year ago, the Blackhawks made the playoffs for the first time in seven years and beat Calgary and Vancouver in the first two rounds before running into the Red Wings.

With stars Jonathan Toews (69 points last year) and Patrick Kane (70) entering their third seasons and another offensive threat in Kris Versteeg (headed into second full season), the Blackhawks will still rely on youth.

The 20-year-old Kane, the top pick in the 2007 draft and the rookie of the year in 2007-08, made headlines off the ice this off-season when he was arrested for an altercation with a cab driver in his hometown of Buffalo. Kane and his cousin, James Kane, pleaded guilty to a non-criminal charge of disorderly conduct and were given conditional discharges.

Kane, who has apologized to fans and family for the distraction, has apparently put the incident behind him. The Blackhawks hope he is just as dangerous this season as he was a year ago.

"It's incredible how sneaky he is out there and hard to control and hard to handle," defenceman Brian Campbell said. "You don't want to lunge too hard at him or go too hard at him because he either beats you with a pass or he's going to beat you one-on-one."

The Blackhawks also drew unwanted attention for some front office moves. General manager Dale Tallon was demoted and replaced by Stan Bowman after the Blackhawks were late in getting qualifying offers out to restricted free agents.

Chicago didn't re-sign leading scorer Martin Havlat or last year's top goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, both of whom were free agents.

Their big off-season pickup was Marian Hossa, who had 40 goals for the Red Wings last season. Hossa got a whopping 12-year contract that the NHL said it was studying. But he needed shoulder surgery and will be out at least until November.

When he does join the lineup, the Hawks are expecting a big production. Hossa has played in the last two Stanley Cup finals - on the loser both times, with the Red Wings last season and the Penguins in 2008.

"I just think he enhances our overall lineup," Quenneville said. "As coaches, you can't have any more options with him around. You can put him anywhere and with anybody. "

The Blackhawks feature another offensive threat in left-winger Patrick Sharp, who had 26 goals last season, a good passer in centre Dave Bolland and a physical crease-buster in linebacker-like Dustin Byfuglien.

One of the team's biggest questions is whether Cristobal Huet, in the second-year of a four-year, US$24.45 million deal, can give the Hawks what they got from Khabibulin - especially in the post-season. Chicago must also find a reliable backup between Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi, who spent most of last season in the minors.

Huet was 20-15-4 last season and had a 3.23 goals against average. He went 1-2 in the playoffs after Khabibulin was injured.

Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, good friends off the ice, have developed into a strong defensive tandem and the speedy Campbell, in his second year with the Hawks, is expected to be more consistent.

Toews, the captain at age 21, had a team-high 34 goals last season after struggling to find the net early in the season.

"I think he went a dozen games or so before he scored his first goal. But that helped him. He's always scored. Always been productive. And I just think he's comfortable in the situation he is this year," Quenneville said.

"It's an important year for him. And hopefully he can get off to a strong start because we know how important he is to our team."



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