Familiar crash landing

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 7:33 AM ET

Being out of it in February, reduced to a spoiler in a half-empty building, is nothing new for the Chicago Blackhawks. They've been stumbling along for so many seasons the cover of their media guide should read: "Just Wait Till Next Year."

But even with all Chicago's experience at missing the playoffs - eight times in the last nine years - it's never easy playing out the string. Especially when the string is 25 games long and your team seems every bit as good as the ones you're never going to catch.

"It's been a hard one," admits veteran centre Bryan Smolinski, forced to make the adjustment from a President's Cup contender in Ottawa to an also-ran in the Windy City.

"We're in a tough situation. In this league, you have one bad month and you fall behind quickly."

COSTLY INJURIES EARLY ON

It hasn't been all bad for the Hawks, but there's been more than enough turbulence to crash land their season. They lost Nikolai Khabibulin, Martin Havlat and Michal Handzus to long term injuries, a week apart, in October. They fired their coach. And they endured ghastly slumps of 2-10-2 and 1-10-2.

"It's been tough," said Hawks coach Denis Savard, who bleeds Chicago colours and hates more than anyone to see them on the outside looking in again. "But I'm very positive here. I wouldn't say it if I really didn't believe it - things are turning around here, for sure. It's not like maybe it'll turn around. It's turned around."

The Hawks are 5-2-1 in their last eight (seven of them on the road), playing some very good hockey against some very good teams, but it's too little and too late.

That's what makes this year all the more frustrating. The Hawks really are a pretty good team that really did have a devastating run of injuries. And chances are they really will be a lot better next year. Problem is, when you haven't won a playoff round since 1996, nobody wants to hear how close you are to finally turning the corner.

"Four or five years ago we asked our fans to be patient, and then we didn't really draft very well," said Savard. "But the last few drafts we've drafted really well. Cam Barker, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, James Wisniewski - that's a pretty solid defence. I like our young players. We're on the right track here."

Savard never gave up as a player and won't as a coach. He bristles when anyone suggests Chicago should be a deadline seller.

"I like my players. I like the group of guys we have here," he said.

"We believe in our core guys and our young kids are not going to be traded, that's for sure."

Just wait till next year? The Hawks have asked their fans to be patient for so long it's hard to ask it of them again, and there's not much point because most of them have already left.

"It's more fun to play in front of 20,000 than 12,000," said Martin Lapointe. "When it's 11,000 or 12,000 people in the building it's kind of a downer, but there's no magic potion. We just have to win games and they'll come back."

POTENTIAL IS THERE

"I think the fans see potential," adds Smolinski.

"But we got overshadowed by the Bears, and the Bulls are doing well.

"There's so many teams in Chicago that when a team isn't doing well, fans can afford to be fairweather. But there's a lot of potential on this team, you can see the future."

Take away the injuries, consider Chicago's 19 one-goal losses, their stable of young defenceman, Khabibulin, Havlat, and it's hard not to think they won't be pretty good next year. But there are still 25 games left this year, almost a third of a season that, for all intents and purposes, doesn't matter. It's a long string.

"You can't look at the big picture, you can't look at the playoff picture," said Lapointe. "You just have to concentrate on what you do best, play 'em one game at a time."


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