(MCT) — CHICAGO — With the United Center crowd of 21,455 celebrating the Blackhawks’ 3-2 victory over the Blues on Tuesday night, Patrick Kane wanted to make sure nobody left without recognizing an assist no box score acknowledged.
“I speak for everybody in the Blackhawks organization in thanking fans for sticking with us,” Kane announced into a public-address system microphone.
They say Kane returned from Switzerland with better judgment but it goes beyond thanking folks in the 300 level. Kane’s instincts so obvious on the ice have become more apparent in the dressing room, such as when he tried explaining what fueled the Hawks’ first 3-0 start since 1972-73.
“There might be a chip on our shoulder,” Kane said. “We had a good season last year, ups and downs, and with the group we have we feel like we can do some better things. It’s almost the same team and sometimes when that happens you come back a little bit more focused and prepared to prove this is a group to do something.”
Fans started lining up outside the arena around 3:30 p.m. to see this group; four hours before the puck drop that felt like nothing compared with the wait they just had endured. The thermometer said this was the coldest day of the year in the city but for many gathered on the West Side it felt like the warmest, even before everybody moved inside to watch the Hawks enter on the red carpet.
They oohed as Jonathan Toews walked by in a designer suit and ahhed when Kane followed wearing a mischievous grin. They applauded the return of Marian Hossa, who was on a stretcher the last time they saw him. They made Patrick Sharp and every other Blackhawk teammate feel missed.
“I LOVE YOU, SHARPIE!” one girl’s sign read.
It was in the arctic air.
What lockout? All 119 days without hockey did was make Hawks fans hungrier, not angrier. They clearly didn’t stay mad inside the Madhouse on Madison, not when the waiting list for season tickets increased by 250 during the work stoppage.
“We don’t take that for granted for one second,” Jonathan Toews said of fan support.
Forget about the lack of snow. Winters in Chicago just aren’t the same without the Blackhawks. January finally felt familiar again — sounded familiar too.
The first sign came when Jim Cornelison reminded us how powerful a national anthem can resonate when it’s not lip-synced. The next sign came in the first period when Kane zipped a backhander past Blues goaltender Brian Elliott on a rare 3-on-0 to cue the Chelsea Dagger song Chicago’s ears hadn’t heard in nine months. By the time the music returned after Duncan Keith’s laser from just inside the blue line deflected off Brent Seabrook for a power-play goal in the second period, everybody in an oversized red sweater began pondering the Hawks’ best start in 40 years.
In sports these days it can be hard to tell what is or isn’t fake but the passion of a Hawks fan is as real as it gets. It was this type of enthusiasm that spread since the Hawks beat elite goalies on consecutive days over the weekend. The euphoria even infected the locker room.
“It’s like in 2010 when we had four lines going,” Hossa said.
Even the most objective trained eyes see what Hossa sees. The absence of training camp could result in goaltenders needing more time to catch up, which favors a wide-open, skilled offensive team such as the Hawks. General manager Stan Bowman’s off-season inactivity helped in one significant way: Chemistry existed the first day back on the ice. There were no new parts to incorporate. Instead, coach Joel Quenneville welcomed back the same players who had disappointed a hockey city — but most of all themselves as Kane suggested.
It created urgency everywhere. Goalie Corey Crawford, under the most pressure, came up big when the Blues feverishly attacked the net in the third period. Quenneville addressed a longtime weakness by shrewdly shifting Dave Bolland to second-line center, which worked. Young prospects who stayed sharp during the lockout playing at Rockford such as Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger and Nick Leddy have contributed. Losing Daniel Carcillo for a month with a knee injury hurts but newbie Brandon Saad looks capable as a fill-in.
In terms of depth and talent, indeed these Hawks resemble the Stanley Cup champions as much as Hossa claimed. But slow down, everybody. The Blackhawks only have played three games and Crawford still needs to win a playoff series for comparisons to the ‘10 team to seem legitimate.
The only thing we really know right now? Handling expectations might challenge the Hawks as much as playing the Western Conference.