Hawks stayin' Sharp for Cup run

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:13 PM ET

The days of being called a potential breakout team are over in Chicago.

Talk is now of division crowns and Stanley Cup titles.

"Going into last year, there was a lot of expectations," said right winger Patrick Sharp. "We missed the playoffs by three points (in 2007-08), so last year was a 'we must make the playoffs' season. I think expectations were greater last year because it was something the Hawks hadn't done in so long.

"When playoff time comes around, if we're in contention, then we'll start hearing how we're supposed to make a big run."

Rest assured, everybody believes the Hawks, who play host to the Flames tonight, will be in contention when the playoffs begin. Prognosticators everwhere suggest Chicago has a chance to win its first title since 1961.

"It's built excitement for the fans," Sharp said. "For the players, though, nothing's basically changed. We feel we have a chance to win and want to keep building."

There are only a couple of steps further for the Blackhawks to climb.

The squad reached the conference final, knocking out Calgary in the first round, before bowing out to the Detroit Red Wings.

The Wings are noticeably weaker, which gives Chicago an inside track.

No way, Sharp insists.

"As far as we're concerned, they're the favourites," he said. "Until someone can beat them in the regular season, they're the team."

It's worth noting the Red Wings beat Chicago in the first meeting of the Original Six rivals.

That's not to say the Hawks are without holes.

Their season opener in Europe provided ammunition to the belief goaltending is their weakness. Despite out-shooting Florida by a 55-24 margin in Helsinki, the Hawks fell in a 4-3 shootout. Let the questions begin about No.-1 goalie Cristobal Huet and backup Antti Niemi.

"I don't think it's as big of a distraction as last year," Sharp said.

"Last year, we had two number-one goalies (with Nikolai Khabibulin and Huet) and there was more controversy over that than whether Cristo can handle it or not. It's not an issue in our room."

Speaking of controversy: How about the off-season surrounding the Blackhawks?

First, there was the firing of GM Dale Tallon amidst the clerical errors that saw a handful of restricted free agents receive bigger contracts than they should have.

Plus the Patrick Kane incident, when the young star was arrested for a dispute with a taxi driver.

The team has rallied around it all, but Sharp -- who is an outstanding practical joker -- said Kane's incident has provided great fodder, although he won't admit whether Kane's nickname is now 20 Cent.

"Behind closed doors, I don't hold back too much," he said. "The day after, I was letting him have it. Just not in public."

One thing Sharp's not holding back is his shot at claiming a spot on Canada's Olympic team.

The winger who was part of this summer's orientation camp has started the season with a bang.

He leads the team with three goals and is tied for top spot with six points in four games.

But he's trying not to think about wearing a Maple Leaf in Vancouver.

"If I'm reading the stats sheet or watching games and say, 'This guy's playing well' or 'That guy's not playing well,' it's not going to do anybody any good," he said.

"What happens, happens."

RANDY.SPORTAK@SUNMEDIA.CA


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