Sunday, April 10, 2011

Given new life, Hawks should thrive in playoffs

On the list of players the Blackhawks needed to rely upon most to get into the playoffs Sunday, not sure about you, but Antti Miettinen didn't make my top 10.

Yet on a Sunday of delayed gratification for the Hawks, it was Miettinen whose go-ahead goal in the Wild's 5-3 victory 400 miles away in Minneapolis helped eliminate the Stars from the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

A Wild day indeed. About five hours earlier, the Hawks left the United Center after a 4-3 loss to the Red Wings disconsolate at the thought of blowing an opportunity to defend their Stanley Cup championship.

"The fact that we're completely at another team's mercy right now, I can't believe it,'' captain Jonathan Toews said upon leaving the dressing room.

Ultimately, it wasn't in the Stars.

Minnesota had lost five of its previous six on home ice. The Stars had everything to play for, while all the Wild probably had were plane reservations. This might be Minnesota's biggest contribution to Chicago sports since the Twins left the Metrodome.

Those wacky Minnesotans know it too: A headline on the front page of the Wild's website read: "By the Way, Chicago … You're Welcome.''

"I've never been more excited after a hockey game in my life that I didn't participate in — I was acting like a 2-year-old celebrating his first birthday party,'' Joel Quenneville said Sunday night in a conference call. "I never thought we'd be talking when we exited that room.''

With the top-seeded Canucks awaiting Wednesday in Vancouver, go ahead and point out all the Hawks' problems with depth and urgency and mental lapses that surfaced again in a game they believed they had to win.

Rip Duncan Keith for playing more up-and-down than a Norris Trophy winner should, Patrick Kane for being too cute with the puck too often or Quenneville for letting early complacency nearly ruin a late surge.

Mock the manner the Hawks backed their way into a postseason that critics think might be shorter than Quenneville's temper with a team defined by inconsistency.

You have every right.

The Hawks didn't earn it Sunday. And it doesn't matter.

The 2010-11 regular season? Flush it.

The regrets Quenneville and his players recited Sunday about bad losses in the first half of the season mean nothing now. All those blown third-period leads can be chalked up to character-builders instead of season-killers. All the Hawks had to worry about when they woke up Monday was remembering their passports for the trip to Canada.

Not Viktor Stalberg's dumb pass that the Red Wings converted into a game-changing goal. Not Corey Crawford's shaky start that reminded us he's a rookie. Not the pressure of becoming only the fifth Cup champion to miss the playoffs in the following season, which clearly showed against the Wings.

Lift that burden, and who knows what's possible now?

This is the NHL. These are the playoffs. This is the league that last year gave us the Flyers making the postseason on the final day in a shootout and riding that momentum all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.

The eighth-seeded Oilers reached the finals in 2006, and the sixth-seeded Flames made it that far in 2004. This is the best tournament in professional sports because of its unpredictability.

"The enthusiasm of making the playoffs is something we can take forward,'' Quenneville said.

Enough talent exists. But enough focus? The Hawks can look like Cup contenders one night — remember the first period in Detroit on Friday? — and one-and-done playoff qualifiers the next.

They need not apologize for being good enough to make the playoffs. The challenge now is showing they want it badly enough to stick around awhile.

There are legitimate reasons to question their ability to make a deep run, including the health and youth of some key players. There also are factors such as playoff experience and star power that make it foolish to count the Hawks out. They finished with 97 points getting every team's best shot. Now they're back in the hunter role against the No. 1 seed.

Given new life, I expect the Hawks to thrive.

Much will be made of getting in Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo's head because, let's face it, the Hawks have proved there's plenty of room. But remember Dustin Byfuglien, Luongo's key nemesis, is gone. Troy Brouwer, clutch in last year's series against the Canucks, is injured. Dave Bolland, who has made himself unwelcome at Sedin family reunions, has been out since March 9 with a concussion and remains iffy.

This is a different team. This is a different year.

But for the first time in a long time, that sounds more like an opportunity than a burden.


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