Commentary

Unfurling great expectations

Blackhawks raise banner well prepared to avoid post-championship letdown

Updated: October 2, 2013, 11:27 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It was a dignified, almost somber goodbye to a friend: a single, solitary spotlight shining on a table at center ice, where the sterling silver cup the Chicago Blackhawks' core have come to know so well sat gleaming atop the good linens.

The organization knows how to savor moments like these, even after so many recent moments like these. And so, each player emerged Tuesday night from the tunnel behind the East goal, skating past the Cup, acknowledging but not touching, before captain Jonathan Toews patted it, picked it up, kissed it and then skated a small circle with it one last time.

For now.

They are careful how they say it, of course. But not too careful. They like this, have already been through a championship hangover after 2010, thank you very much, and have expectations this time around. Big ones.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Toews
Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews hoisted the Stanley Cup before the season opener Tuesday. Chicago began its title defense with a 6-4 victory over the Capitals.

They began the strike-shortened season of 2012-13 at a franchise-best 6-0, then stretched that to an eventual NHL record 24 straight games without a loss. Aside from that streak ending, there were few hiccups on the way to the postseason and ultimately -- including one of the great 17-second championship-game sequences in sports history -- their second Stanley Cup in four years.

With the same sort of precision, they executed the perfect banner-raising ceremony Tuesday night, as eight youth hockey players flanked by a pair of servicemen brought the banner onto the ice, where they handed it off to the 19 returning Blackhawks players.

Skating into the corner, they slowly unfurled it. And after it left their hands and assumed its permanent place in the rafters, they moved into place for one final team picture with the Cup.

"That was an amazing feeling," said Chicago goalie Corey Crawford. "A little bit emotional, but it was so cool to see that thing go up."

Four minutes and six seconds later, as if still part of the choreography, Brandon Bollig scored the first goal of the new season and the Blackhawks, bucking the egg-laying trend of so many teams following a championship celebration, went on to beat the Washington Capitals 6-4.

"We'd love to win every night," said Bollig, who joked that he "blacked out a little bit" after his first career goal. "It's obviously tough to do that, but our main focus here is to get off to a great start this year and put ourselves in a good position to win the division and take it from there in the playoffs."

They are, of course, in a far superior position this time around than after 2010, when nine players were lost to a salary cap bloodletting. These Hawks lost backup goalie Ray Emery, but bringing back former goalie Nikolai Khabibulin -- even at age 40 -- to spell Crawford lessens any real uneasiness.

Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg and Dave Bolland, who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Boston, also left. But Andrew Shaw, the gash in his face having finally stopped bleeding, will take Bolland's place centering the third line. And Calder finalist Brandon Saad will assume the third-line winger position of Stalberg, who seemed to spend more time in Joel Quenneville's doghouse than out of it last season.

Crawford, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Bryan Bickell, with nine goals and eight assists in 23 playoff games, were all well-rewarded for their playoff performances with new contracts during the offseason. But the Hawks will expect more consistency from Bickell this season, and they could use some depth behind second-line center Michal Handzus.

All eyes will also be on the power play, which was one of the few real mediocre areas last season; a 1-for-4 start to the season will only continue that scrutiny.

The Caps, meanwhile capitalized on one of their first three chances Tuesday night, then fired in two straight goals in the first five minutes of the third period to take a 4-3 lead.

A give-and-go from Saad to Hadnzus and back to Saad tied it back up at 4 apiece, and a long slap shot by Johnny Oduya gave the Hawks a 5-4 lead at 13:53 of the third.

And they ultimately redeemed themselves on the penalty kill.

After a delay of game by rookie Joakim Nordstrom (who lifted the puck over the glass as he tried to clear it on a Caps power play with 3:33 left in regulation) gave Washington a 5-3 advantage for 1:26, the Hawks put on a furious playoff-caliber defense.

With Hjalmarsson crouched animal-like beside Crawford, the Hawks' goalie fended off five shots on goal while two men down, and the Hawks killed the remainder of the power play.

Marian Hossa, who missed more than a week of the preseason with an upper-body injury, was credited with the final goal when he was hooked from behind as he was about to score an empty-netter at 19:22.

"First goal in my career I didn't have to score actually," Hossa said.

It wasn't perfect, particularly when you consider the way we last left them. But this team knows how to value victories and this was not the night, with their newest banner waving above them, to nitpick.

"Overall," said Bickell, "we're just happy."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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