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Thursday, October 1, 2009
Will Hawks be able to top themselves?

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

HELSINKI -- The last time we saw the Chicago Blackhawks in a real game, it was May 27 at Joe Louis Arena. Their magical spring tour came to a crashing halt on Darren Helm's overtime goal.

The result was expected, even if heartbreaking, as the young Hawks learned valuable playoff lessons at the hands of the veteran Detroit Red Wings.

On Friday in Helsinki, the Hawks will hit the ice with the Florida Panthers for a game that matters for the first time since then, a Chicago team perhaps burdened with lofty expectations after last season's surprising results.

Reaching last season's conference finals was gravy. Now, it's expected. And that can be a tough adjustment for a team that remains heavier on the peach fuzz than the gray hairs.

"No one expected us to do what we did last year," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said after Thursday's practice at Hartwall Arena. "We just kept pushing, and we were proud of what we accomplished to a certain degree. This year, everyone thinks, 'They're not so young and inexperienced anymore.' Everyone thinks we're going straight to the finals. But realistically, it's not going to be that easy.

"To win our division or make the playoffs, even, is going to be a tough task. We have to not try to bite off more than what we can chew at any given time. If we keep everything short-term and worry about that, the long-term goals will take care of themselves."

That message has been sent loud and clear around the Hawks' dressing room. From coach Joel Quenneville to the players, top to bottom, it was evident Thursday that the Hawks understand what's at stake. On the one hand, they'd like to glean all the positive experience from last season. But they also don't want to live in the past and have it affect what's needed to be done in the here and now. It's a delicate balance.

"Having the experience we got last year in the playoffs was a huge for us," star blueliner Duncan Keith said. "Playing in those tough buildings in Calgary, Vancouver and obviously against Detroit as well, that experience is going to be good for us down the road. But we also have to realize right away now that it's a new season, and what we did last year was great, but it's a whole new year and teams are hungry. We have to be hungrier.

"It comes down to having the mindset that this year is going to be tougher in the sense that teams know about us, and teams are going to be ready to play us."

You can't find a Web site, newspaper or magazine preview that hasn't extolled the virtues of the Hawks for this season. Let's face it, there was barely a better story in hockey last season. An Original Six market -- and a great one at that -- was reawakened. Now the players have to live up to the immense buzz that has been created from that. It's not easy.

"We can't think about that stuff," defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "We've been hearing about it all summer on how great we were last season. We have to block that out. I'd like to hear about how the Detroit guys handle this every year. They're pretty good at it, so I don't see why our team can't get better at that."

Those are the same Wings many people predict finally will be unseated in the Central Division by the Hawks.

"No offense, but we're trying not to think too much about stuff like that," Toews said, insisting his team is trying to ignore the glorious predictions. "We've made it clear to ourselves what our objectives and goals should be. We know there's going to be some times where it's going to be frustrating. We'll be tired, we'll have some back-to-back losses maybe, and those are the days it'll be tough to go to work at the rink. But we have to battle through that. We know if we can battle through those days and work extra-hard, we have the talent that can come through."

It's not just Detroit the Hawks have to battle this season. The Central Division as a whole means business.

"We probably play in one of the best divisions in the NHL," Hawks star forward Patrick Kane said. "St. Louis is really coming up, and obviously Detroit, and Columbus and Nashville are always a challenge as well. We got to be ready for this season more than last year I think."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.