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Monday, April 14, 2014
Hawks need stars to align quickly

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It's playoff time, Chicago. Do you know where your superstars are?

Why, there they are at Johnny's IceHouse West, the newish practice facility hard by a railroad line, due west of the United Center and the sprawl of the West Side renovation.

For the people who fetishize "Chicago toughness," Johnny's sits in such a stretch of Madison St., a veritable hockey factory in factory country.

Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews
The Blackhawks get Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews back for the playoffs, but how effective will they be after missing the end of the regular season?
Along with a couple of teammates, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane punched the clock on Monday afternoon, attempting to sharpen more than their skates with no time to lose.

Their playoffs begin Thursday in St. Louis. The Blues are a reeling team meeting a first-round underdog, if only by seed, that just happens to be the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Two rivals that have provided plenty of regular-season intrigue, it should be a doozy of a first-round series.

And for the Blackhawks to have any chance of winning, they need Kane and Toews to come out hot. Fortunately, hockey doesn't require consistent superstar play from superstar players, but Chicago will need both superstars to at least have workman-like efforts, playing defense, keeping goalies honest.

Kane, out since March 19 with a knee injury, talked last week after a team practice in Chicago, while Toews talked for the first time since he was knocked out of a game on March 30 in Pittsburgh by Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. The Blackhawks' lack of a "retaliation" caused a great deal of discussion about the hockey Hammurabi code in a modern world.

But all that talk-show fodder about toughness and the importance of "sending a message" is all gone now. There is no past in the NHL playoffs, only potential.

The wonderful thing about the NHL playoffs is that early rounds aren't foregone conclusions. Seeds give way to matchups, hot goaltenders and luck.

For all the hopeful talk of how fortunate Kane and Toews, Stanley Cup champions and Olympians, were to get some much-needed rest before the postseason, the concern for the Blackhawks is how quickly they can get back to peak form. Can they create and finish those lucky bounces?

And how quickly can the entire team coalesce, for that matter? It's not just about two players.

The great challenge for the Blackhawks, who came back fully stocked for a Cup repeat and survived the season to go into the postseason as the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference, is simply playing better hockey than their opponents.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said he just wants to see his team keep it simple, whether it's finishing checks or taking the shot before them.

"We get ourselves in a little bit of trouble when we try to do too much, whether it's too pretty or more one play," Quenneville said.

Quenneville said "awareness" is something he's bringing up with the players. Given that many of them have two Stanley Cups to their name, it shouldn't be hard to drill.

"I think once we get a feel for just being in a playoff game again it's going to be exciting," Toews said. "I think the boys are looking forward to it. To us, this is what it's all about. It's a long season, a lot of challenges coming your way, a lot of injuries, a lot of ups and downs. I think we've done a great job of dealing with all that.

"We would have liked to have home ice. We would have liked to maybe have a season like we did last year where everything went our way the whole way, but that wasn't the case. I think we find ways to get past those tough moments. We'll learn from things we went through this year, even through the playoffs last year, use that experience as much as we can."

The core of this team certainly has its share of playoff experience, good and bad. The last time the Blackhawks defended their Cup, in 2011, the salary-cap-gutted roster eked into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and nearly upset No. 1 seed Vancouver on the road.

This time, it's easy to say the Hawks need a hot start, but that's not the case given their history of working their way into the playoffs.

Joel Quenneville
Joel Quenneville wants his Blackhawks to keep it simple as they begin another run for a Stanley Cup.
In 2010, they had trouble with Nashville in the first round. In 2013, they had a sluggish opening series against Minnesota and went down 3-1 to Detroit in the second round before roaring back. They needed a magical 17 seconds to come back and beat Boston in Game 6 last season.

I feel like smart, teeth-gritting Blackhawks fans look hopefully, but warily, at this team's chances. The good news, if you go by popular opinion, is that St. Louis is a better matchup than Colorado.

St. Louis slid to second in the Central Division with six straight losses, which obviously makes it more vulnerable than the Avalanche, right?

"That's what everybody wants to talk about," Toews said. "But we're not going to think that we have an easier team to play against. That's definitely not going to be the case. They're a team that loves to play physical against us and we've got to expect that. There's no reason why we can't return that as well."

That's tough talk, but physicality isn't really the hallmark of a playoff series, let alone the highly-skilled Blackhawks.

"I think the most important thing is to try to play our game and try not to be anyone else," Kane said.

Wise words from an expert.

Playoff season is here, Chicago. Do you know where your Blackhawks are?