Blackhawks ready to take center stage

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It would have been perfect if the Chicago Blackhawks could have carried their franchise-record winning streak into the Winter Classic, but it wasn't to be.

Despite the fact that the Detroit Red Wings -- Chicago's opponent in the outdoor game on New Year's Day -- easily handled the Blackhawks in a tune-up for the showdown at Wrigley Field, the Winter Classic will still be a coming- out party for the NHL's franchise in Chicago.

The Blackhawks, who like the Red Wings are an Original Six franchise, have experienced a renaissance in recent years as they've used a series of high draft picks to build one of the most exciting teams in the league.

For years, hockey in Chicago was a mere sideshow. After all, the Blackhawks have some serious competition in the Windy City, where two major league baseball franchises, the NFL's Bears and the NBA's Bulls also play.

Patrick Kane leads the
Blackhawks with 41 points.
While the Cubs, the loveable losers who call Wrigley Field home, are arguably the city's most cherished franchise it was the Bulls who captured hardware for Chicago in the 1990s. Michael Jordan's Bulls won six NBA titles in a span of eight years during the '90s and the team became synonymous with the word "dynasty".

The Blackhawks actually had a string of 28 straight playoff appearances from 1970-1997, but the Bulls, who had never won a title before Jordan's arrival, quickly trumped the city's consistent NHL franchise with their barrage of championships. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, haven't won a Stanley Cup title since 1961, a fact that even 50 straight years of making the playoffs wouldn't erase from the minds of Chicago hockey fans.

The problem for the Blackhawks is that since that lengthy postseason run, the club has made the playoffs just once (2002) in the last 10 seasons. Head coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Dale Tallon hope the Hawks can change that by getting back into the postseason this year.

The Blackhawks are certainly on the right track to make a return to the NHL's second season, as they head into the New Year second in the Central Division and just six points behind the Red Wings.

However, Detroit didn't seem impressed when the clubs met in Motown just two days before the outdoor showdown. The Blackhawks rolled into Detroit riding a franchise-record nine-game winning streak, but the Red Wings shut down Chicago and skated away with a 4-0 victory.

It was an impressive defensive performance by the defending Stanley Cup champions considering the Blackhawks had lit the lamp 24 times in their previous five games.

The same thing could happen to Chicago in the Winter Classic, but it's extremely difficult -- even for a team like Detroit -- to hold back the Blackhawks' potent offense in two straight games.

Chicago is the youngest team in the NHL and its leading offensive player, Patrick Kane, just turned 20 years old earlier this season. Kane, a native of Buffalo, NY where last year's Winter Classic was held, leads the Blackhawks with 41 points and is the player to watch in this year's outdoor battle.

Let's just hope Kane and other Chicago youngsters like Jonathan Toews and Kris Versteeg aren't slowed down by the outdoor ice surface, which can be a hindrance to quick skaters.

If the ice surface is easy to skate on, the Blackhawks will try to dictate the pace of the game and use speed and youth to their advantage against a veteran- laden Detroit squad.

The Blackhawks will certainly feel the pressure to perform not just for the crowd at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day, but also for the millions of folks tuning in at home. The thrill of playing in front of 41,000 hockey fans should wipe away any feelings of nervousness, however.

Chicago has waited a while for a hockey franchise it can be proud of to re- emerge and the 2008-09 Blackhawks have more than enough talent to fit that bill.

On New Year's Day, Kane and company will have a chance to show the rest of the hockey world what Chicago hockey fans already know...the Blackhawks are back.
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Dan Di Sciullo