'Hawks are flying high

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

Looking for a team to pull for in the Stanley Cup playoffs, one with a decidedly Winnipeg flavour?

Look no further than the Chicago Blackhawks, residents of "the other windy city," where a pair of Winnipeggers and a former fan favourite with the Jets have helped resurrect an Original Six franchise that, not long ago, was little more than a pothole on the NHL landscape.

"It's unbelievable, compared to what it was a couple of years ago," 'Hawks defenceman Cam Barker was saying from Chicago yesterday. "The biggest building in the league, and to have it sold out every game, it's electrifying. Going into playoffs, I can't even imagine. I can't wait to see it."

Yes, Chicago sports fans love their 'Hawks again, and why not?

They're back in the playoffs for the first time in seven years after a fourth-place finish in the West. Thursday night, they'll host Calgary before the usual sellout throng of 22,000-plus at the United Center.

Going into the season, the 'Hawks were the young team with all the potential, led by one of the youngest captains in NHL history, Winnipeg's Jonathan Toews.

After some early-season struggles in which Toews admits he was trying to do far too much, the soon-to-be 21-year-old finished with 34 goals, growing up before our very eyes -- just like his team.

"It's incredible, how far we've come," Toews told the Sun, citing a December-January streak that convinced him and his teammates they were for real. "I wouldn't say we had a certain cockiness, but we started to build somewhat of a swagger and a belief in ourselves that we can get the job done. We finished right where we wanted to. Now it's time to start over again."

They're doing it almost from scratch.

Just 10 Chicago players have even a single game of NHL playoff experience.

Barker, Toews and the rest of them -- including Winnipeg-born defenceman Duncan Keith -- are green as grass.

"That's not a lot compared to other teams," Barker acknowledged. "That does stick out. The NHL playoffs are different, no doubt. But a lot of players on our team have played in big games, either NCAA finals, world juniors, Memorial Cups. We know what it's like to be part of winning teams."

Barker only has to look across at Toews, who won gold at a world championship and two world juniors. Any peach fuzz on the kid's face was long ago scraped raw by high sticks.

"We've looked at our inexperience in a good way," Toews said. "We're just going to go have fun. Sometimes when you don't know your limitations, the sky is the limit."

Besides, the Blackhawks have a not-so-secret weapon in goal that Winnipeggers will remember fondly, going as far back as the spring of 1996.

Nikolai Khabibulin, thought to be on his way out of Chicago when the season began, has rediscovered his game and grabbed the No. 1 job.

"He's something else," Barker marvelled. "He's a machine. He really came on the second half of the season, and stole some games for us. A guy you can look to for a little bit of guidance."

The matchup between the pipes is actually one of the more intriguing of this series, as Khabibulin (Tampa Bay) and Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff last squared off in a playoff series in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. The quirky Russian beat the quirkier Finn in seven games.

Toews says the "Bulin Wall" looks every bit as impenetrable as the one he watched years ago.

"He's quite a character, let me tell you," Toews said. "Good old Khabby. He doesn't make a big deal about it. He just goes out there and performs.

"When I was 16, 17 years old, dreaming of playing in the NHL, I never thought, even at that point, I'd ever have a chance to play with or against a guy like that. It's pretty cool."

So is this: the idea of two players from a city that used to be known as the Chicago of the North, along with an ex-Jet, trying to put the "Win" back in the Windy City.


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