Hawks bucking the playoff trend

Updated: May 5, 2009, 9:05 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun |

CHICAGO -- The comparisons are too surreal to ignore and, quite frankly, the Chicago Blackhawks don't mind them at all.

Being lumped in with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals as a rising powerhouse rebuilt around young stars is just fine with them. Who wouldn't want that company?

Thing is, the Hawks forgot to read the full script. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pens were out in five games in the opening round of the 2007 playoffs, their first taste of postseason action. Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and the Caps were done in seven last spring in their first playoff opportunity.

Lessons learned, it was said at the time; they would be better off for it. And that actually has rung true given Pittsburgh's run to the Cup finals last season and Washington's first trip to the second round in 11 years this spring.

But the Blackhawks? They forgot they were supposed to lose in the first round. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the rest of the gang took out the veteran Calgary Flames and now head into Game 3 at home Tuesday night with a road split earned in Vancouver to open the second round. This is a team that could very well be in the Western Conference finals in two weeks, let alone get a "taste" of the postseason in its first foray.

So what gives?

"We're a young team, of course, but you look at those two teams and it's guys like Crosby and Malkin and Ovechkin at the center of all the attention," Toews said Monday after practice at United Center. "Here, there's cameras all over the locker room. There's 10 guys on any given night that have stolen the spotlight and making a huge play or scoring a huge goal. Every guy in this dressing room can play exciting hockey.

"We've gotten so many contributions from different places," added the 21-year-old Hawks captain. "We've got a pretty solid team and I think that's the reason we've been pretty successful so far."

The inference is this Hawks team isn't as top-heavy as those Pens and Caps teams were in their first playoff campaigns. Yes, Toews and Kane are the faces of the franchise, but they've got a heck of supporting cast, even if people around North America are still waking up to those other names. Players like Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland; plus, there's Martin Havlat, Brian Campbell, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Kris Versteeg.

"The Blackhawks have been building for eight years," said Seabrook, picked 14th overall in 2003. "I think when that happens, you do have a bit more depth."

The point being the Hawks might be new at it, but they've got a lot of players who are good at it. They're wet behind the ears, but they're loaded with talent from top to bottom.

"We have a lot of guys on this team that could be superstars," Versteeg said. "If they were in a lot of other organizations, they would go out there and play the full two minutes on the power play, the minute-and-a-half shifts. Our guys, they go out and take a 35-, 45-second shift. They believe they aren't above anyone on the team."

Washington's first power-play unit, led by Ovechkin, almost always plays the full two minutes. And why not? It was the second-best unit in the NHL in the regular season. But really, who else would the Caps put out there?

"Ovechkin is obviously a very special player," Versteeg said. "But if you take a two-minute power-play shift, you're going to get more points. Our guys, they don't try to extend themselves. They really want what's best for the team."

Then there's the goalie factor.

"I think it helps having [Nikolai] Khabibulin in net, a guy that's been there and reliable," Campbell said.

Marc-Andre Fleury was indeed a little shaky in April 2007 in that five-game loss to Ottawa, but rebounded well, and then some, last postseason. The Caps went with Cristobal Huet, who was OK, but not good enough. Ironically, he's now backing up Khabibulin in Chicago.

"He's been there and won a championship," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said of Khabibulin, a Cup winner with Tampa Bay in 2004. "We've fed off him this year in terms of his experience and preparation."

Still, this is a very young team. Talented, yes, but young. Why aren't the Hawks wilting under the playoff pressure?

"I think you look at our team and, yes, we have some young guys, and sometimes it seems like we don't know any better," said the 20-year-old Kane, his playoff beard very much a work in progress. "We're just playing hockey. It's been a lot of fun throughout the year. It's like we just don't want the season to end. We want to keep playing hockey and keep enjoying this ride."

The Hawks are feeding off an amazing renaissance in this market. About 100 fans were lined up in the wee hours of the morning Monday to get their hands on the remaining tickets for Game 3, unheard of in these parts for a long, long time. The love affair between this great city and its Original Six team has been rekindled.

And while most players would downplay that kind of intangible factor as having any impact on their play, Kane admitted it's very much on their minds. Why let such a good thing end now?

"It's like one of those seasons for us. The Blackhawks are back in Chicago," Kane said. "The crowd is back. The excitement is back. You get noticed on the streets, things like that. It's a lot of fun for us right now. We're just enjoying the ride."

Campbell said there's something to that theory about ignorance being bliss. He recalled the feeling in the dressing room four seasons ago in Buffalo, when his young and exciting Sabres squad surprised the pundits coming out of the lockout.

"We didn't have a lot of guys who had played in the playoffs," said the star blueliner. "Everybody was saying we didn't have any experience. We didn't really care about what anybody else said, and we went to the conference finals and forced a Game 7 with three regular defensemen in our lineup.

"A lot of it here is also the ignorance of this team that just doesn't accept what other people say or believe. We believe in what we can do out there. Maybe we don't know any better."

Maybe they don't. And the game is better for it.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer