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After their West Coast offense amassed 11 goals against Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith, the Blackhawks will stage a home opener of their own Tuesday night. The United Center shall furnish the red carpet, but you’re on your own for ear plugs.
When Coach Joel Quenneville asserted that this abbreviated National Hockey League season would take the world’s fastest sport to another level, he kidded not. New Year’s Day was three weeks ago. In three weeks, pitchers and catchers report.
Half of the Blackhawks’ 48 games will be of the back-to-back variety, and early returns suggest that this compressed schedule could reward their speed, depth and experience. With a roster virtually unchanged, the Blackhawks rolled to 5-2 and 6-4 conquests in Los Angeles and Phoenix over a pair of masked men who committed serial robberies during last spring’s playoffs.
Tuesday night, the St. Louis Blues will visit and Marian Hossa will return to a rink he departed on horizontal hold last April after a brutal hit by the Coyotes’ Raffi Torres. He is still suspended, and Hossa is still Hossa, with four goals over the weekend. Recuperating from a severe concussion, Hossa was cleared to resume practicing in November. He’s been waiting ever since, as have hockey fans in Chicago.
On October 9, 2010, the Blackhawks opened their home season by raising their Stanley Cup banner. If any of the players thought of the scene as a once-in-a-lifetime event at the time, they are conditioned to try to make it happen twice. The Blackhawks will raise no banners Tuesday night, but they quite likely will hoist their sticks in the air, thanking supporters for patience and understanding. Mutual admiration has not been sacrificed, only interrupted. The bond is secure. Chicagoans wear Blackhawk sweaters in the middle of July. Now, it is the middle of January, and it’s business as usual instead of the business of sports.
Not that the Blackhawks required any extra motivation, but they were dealt a schedule featuring a hat trick of reality checks. They debuted in Los Angeles, where they might have heard but did not witness the Kings’ on-ice gala unveiling of their Stanley Cup banner. Upon departing the locker room, the Blackhawks took some air out of the Staples Center. Hossa,carted off in a stretcher last April, showed wheels of his own again, scoring twice.
Then it was on to Phoenix, where the Blackhawks began the playoffs last April. The Coyotes prevailed, winning all three of their assignments in the United Center, yielding just four goals. After the Coyotes clinched with a 4-0 victory in Game 6, they partied in among themselves midst stunned silence throughout the building. The Blackhawks had to deal with that comeuppance all summer.
Say what you want about the Vancouver Canucks, but Tuesday night’s foe, the Blues, evolved into instant rivals as soon as they joined the league via the 1967-68 expansion, before the Canucks were born.The Blues’ tiffs with the Blackhawks have always possessed an edge, and now St. Louis is being hailed as a potential powerhouse. Various experts are predicting the Blues to rule the Central Division, perhaps also the Western Conference. A first Stanley Cup for the Blues is deemed entirely possible, another message for the Blackhawks.
One difference, one of many, from the shortened and delayed 1995 season was evident in bold letters on Saturday morning before the Blackhawks opened in Los Angeles. Hockey stories dominated not only the sports sections but front pages of the Chicago Tribune and Daily Herald. Newspapers are entrusted to reflect interest, not generate it, and it’s not as though there’s nothing else going on. Bears, Notre Dame, Lance Armstrong. But all the celestial musing about post-lockout hockey apathy does not apply in Chicago.Or elsewhere. See: NHL weekend attendance figures.
“BACK ON THE ICE” proclaimed the Tribune. In 1995, the Blackhawks were not missed to the extent they have been this winter, and while their first ever game in the shiny United Center on January 25th was obviously a happening, it felt like a sidebar to some fans who grew up at the beloved and bygone Stadium.
Darryl Sutter, who took over the Kings last December and guided them to their Cup, coached the Blackhawks in 1995. He stressed a fast start and got it, but after a five-game winning streak in March, they unaccountably endured a 13-game win-less streak (with two ties) before finishing the season with another five-game winning streak to take third place in the Central Division. They won two playoff series, against Toronto and Vancouver, before bowing in five gritty games of the conference finals to the mighty Detroit Red Wings.
“Anything can happen in a short season,” recalled Scotty Bowman, who coached those Red Wings and is now senior advisor for hockey operations with the Blackhawks. “Teams that have guys on their farm teams who can come up and play on the fourth line at the NHL level will have an advantage. Injuries also are a factor.”
The Blackhawks already have one. Daniel Carcillo is sidelined with a lower body problem after “ten great minutes” in Los Angeles, according to Coach Q, who spent many nights the last couple months watching the Rockford IceHogs. He likes what he saw. That word again. Depth.
Alas, the entire 2004-05 season was wiped out by the mother of all impasses between management and labor. We are not breaking any news here by stating that the Blackhawks were down at the time. Back then, the franchise had to locate and identify fans. That represents a seismic shift from what will unfold at the United Center Tuesday night, when the Blackhawks will walk the red carpet before entertaining a 191st consecutive sellout.
If you are searching for disinterest toward hockey in Chicago, so be it. I’ll be looking for my ear plugs.
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