CHICAGO – The New Year’s Day game at Wrigley Field, so full of meaning and emotion and fresh air at the time, feels rather small now. That’s a sign of real growth for the Blackhawks.
The intent here is not to take anything away from that game against the Red Wings because it was great outdoors. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Chicago. It was another reminder that the Hawks are back after years of what felt like criminal neglect by ownership.
But what we’re experiencing now is so much better, so much more fulfilling. That January game was pure marketing. This is late-stage playoff hockey.
This remarkable playoff run was built brick by brick. What we’re seeing now is the result of hard work and heavy lifting by the players and coaches.
When the Hawks and the Red Wings meet today in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, it will be another reminder that nothing sells like winning.
The Blackhawks sent Vancouver away in Game 6 of the semifinals. The United Center was so loud you had to lean into the next person and yell to be heard.
Winning big games does that. Having a young, fast team does that. Watching a group of talented players grow up does that.
The Red Wings won the Wrigley game 6-4, and they looked like men playing against boys. But the boys have matured. They’re different than they were in January. They’re better and tougher. They won the last two meetings between the two teams after losing four straight.
They think they can do this, and who’s going to doubt them? A lot of people, obviously. The Red Wings have 11 Stanley Cup titles to their name.
“Before the year, if you told us we’d be in this position, I don’t know if I’d believe you, but now it feels like we have a great team, a team that can do some damage,” Hawks star Patrick Kane said.
Let’s not kid anyone. The Red Wings are the defending champions. They’re experienced, and they’ve seen everything there is to see. They rarely make mistakes. And they’re tough too.
But Detroit looked tired at the end of its seven-game series Thursday night against Anaheim.
The Hawks’ legs might be a little fresher. The Red Wings don’t appear too concerned about it.
“You’re excited about going to the conference finals, and you know you’re only one step away from playing in the Stanley Cup finals,” Detroit star Nicklas Lidstrom said. “And when you play a good, young team and a fast team in the Blackhawks, you know you have to be prepared. So you have to get your emotions in control again after a big win (Thursday) night and prepare for a tough experience again.”
Kane is 20. We’re about to find out if he and his mates are good enough and mature enough. And we’re about to find out if the 39-year-old Lidstrom, the best defenseman in the NHL, is tired. Same with Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Hossa, both 30.
“They have gained confidence, and I think their better players have been their young players,” Lidstrom said of the Hawks. “When you have a goalie (like Nikolai) Khabibulin, the way he’s been playing in the playoffs, I think it gives the whole team confidence. I see their team making strides as the season went on and getting better and better.”
How much better? Let’s head indoors and find out.
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