Blackhawks are down, but not out

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

CHICAGO -- As much as this playoff run has been about winning the Stanley Cup, it's been a learning experience for the Chicago Blackhawks.

The bulk of their team, especially rising stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, had no playoff experience before this spring.

They've managed to take out both the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames -- two teams both loaded with more post-season experience — overcome all the emotional highs and lows that have come along the way.

They're in the tough spot of trailing the reigning Stanley Cup champs from Detroit 2-0 in the best-of-seven series, so it's quite likely the dream will soon be over in the Windy City.

Disappointing? Yes.

But not necessarily a bad thing.

The Blackhawks could come back from this deficit and eliminate Detroit, but even if they don't, it's easy to believe they'll come away from this experience having learned as much by losing the Red Wings as beating the Flames and Canucks.

"Yes, absolutely that's true," said former Hawk Troy Murray, who now works on the team's radio broadcasts. "I'm not degrading Vancouver or Calgary, but this is the Stanley Cup champs. Whether they win or lose, they're either going to understand quickly how to beat the Stanley Cup champs, or they're going to understand why they're the Stanley Cup champs, and how much more you've got to do to beat them.

"Anaheim can say they were three minutes away from a possible victory, but they weren't because they didn't win. That's the way it works. The Red Wings, because of who they are and the success they've had, find a way to win.

"Other teams need to get to that level and find a way to win."

The Hawks have done their share of winning already in the playoffs. Maybe even more than most pundits predicted they would.

They've also gone further than any of the other turnaround teams in recent years.

They were chosen as the team on the rise before the season started, much like Pittsburgh was heading into 2006-07 and eventually Sidney Crosby helped the Penguins return to the playoffs.

Last season, Washington was in the same boat, and Alexander Ovechkin led the Capitals back to the second season.

Crosby's first foray into the NHL playoffs ended in the first round at the hands of the Ottawa Senators. Alexander the Great and the Capitals couldn't punch a ticket to the second-round either, halted by Philadelphia in a seven-game set.

The Blackhawks are already a step or two farther than either of those teams.

People may see it as a cliche, but the adage you have to learn to win remains true in the hockey world.

The Edmonton Oilers were better for losing the New York Islanders in the 1983 final before winning their first Cup, which came at the expense of the Islanders at the end.

Look at the difference with the Penguins this season after losing to Detroit in last year's Stanley Cup final.

And the Blackhawks have an advantage on those Pittsburgh and Washington squads that climbed back into the playoffs after years away -- a deeper team.

Those teams were built around one star, albeit incredible stars.

Not only do the Hawks have a pair of future all-stars in Toews and Kane, the supporting cast is much better than realized with the likes of Martin Havlat, David Bolland, Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd to name a few up front, plus a defence corps with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Cam Barker.

All should play big parts for this team down the road, having gone through this experience together, under head coach Joel Quenneville.

"With about a month to go in the season, they lost several games in a row, and Joel let them figure it out on their own," Murray said.

"He didn't over-analyze things or try to coach it to the degree he was nitpicking. He let these guys, as a young group, sort it out amongst themselves. That's great for them, because they need to figure it out themselves. It's a learning experience, dealing with adversity and how to respond when things aren't going well, as an individual and as a group. Every time this team has been down, they reacted the right way."

At this point, the Hawks don't want to look down the road too much, but a year or two or three from now, the fruits of this spring's labour may be borne.

"If we keep the core group the same, there's no telling what this team can do," winger Troy Brouwer said.

"It's the first year we've been together, really, and look how far we've come. With the ability we have and the potential we have as a team, I think, if they're able to keep this team together, we're going to be a pretty good team and a contender for years."


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