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Even though the Chicago Blackhawks fell just short of the playoffs in 2007-08, they were encouraged by the success of talented rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Perhaps the addition of two veterans can help the club end its seven-year postseason drought.
Free-agent acquisitions Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet join the second-year stars as the visiting Blackhawks open their season on Friday with a matchup against the New York Rangers, who look to start with three straight wins for the first time in 19 years.
After Chicago finished last in the Central Division with 71 points in 2006-07, the team turned in a third-place finish and a 17-point improvement behind Kane and Toews last season.
The top overall draft pick in 2007, Kane led all rookies with a team-high 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) en route to becoming the first Blackhawks player to win the Calder Trophy since goaltender Ed Belfour in 1990-91. Toews finished second for the award, but was just as deserving, topping all first-year players with 24 goals despite missing more than a month with a knee injury.
Both Kane and Toews will be trying to build on their impressive first seasons, but appear more focused on helping the team meet its playoff expectations.
"We have to keep it even," Toews, named the Blackhawks' captain, told the league's official Web site. "We have to set goals for ourselves and we know we're capable of being at the top of our conference. That's all that matters."
Chicago finished three points out of the final spot in the Western Conference last season to miss the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 years.
In an effort to return to the postseason for the first time since 2001-02, the Blackhawks bolstered their young core by signing defenseman Campbell to an eight-year deal and goaltender Huet to a four-year contract.
"They've definitely given us the best chance to win. As a player, that's all you can ask for," said center Patrick Sharp, who established career highs in goals (36) and points (62) last season.
Campbell played with Buffalo in 2007-08 before he was acquired by San Jose at the trade deadline, totaling a career high in assists (54) and points (62).
The two-time All-Star scored five of his eight goals with the man advantage, and looks to boost a Chicago power-play unit that ranked 24th in the league (15.9 percent).
The Blackhawks finished 10th in the NHL with 234 goals, and could thrive again this season behind Dustin Byfuglien (19 goals, 36 points) and a healthy Martin Havlat, who had 10 goals and 27 points while being limited to 35 games due to shoulder and groin injuries.
Chicago didn't have much trouble scoring, but allowed 231 goals - the 11th-highest total in the NHL - and seeks to reduce that number behind Huet, who went 32-14-6 with a 2.32 goals-against average in 52 games with Montreal and Washington last season.
Huet will share the net with Nikolai Khabibulin, who cleared waivers last week and will be on the roster. Blackhawks coach Denis Savard said he won't name a starter for the opener at New York (2-0-0) until Friday.
While the Blackhawks have been preparing for the season on North American soil, the Rangers are returning home after posting back-to-back 2-1 wins over Tampa Bay to sweep a season-opening set in the Czech Republic last weekend.
On Sunday, Scott Gomez and Wade Redden each had a goal and an assist, while Henrik Lundqvist made 18 saves to help New York inch closer to opening with three consecutive wins for the first time since 1989-90.
The Rangers outshot the Lightning 80-40 in the two games, but also went 0-for-9 on power-play opportunities.
"We've got to pick up some things," Gomez said. "We get so many shots and we want to put more goals in. But the bottom line is we took four points and we'll keep it that way."
Gomez and the Rangers are set for their opener at Madison Square Garden, where they went 9-0-3 in their last 12 regular-season games last season to finish 25-13-3 at home.
Though it has had a few days in between games, New York doesn't expect that extra rest to be a problem.
"We have a little break here, we'll have a couple of good practices," new captain Chris Drury said. "I'm sure the Garden will be rocking on Friday and we'll be ready."
The Rangers are 4-2-1 with a tie in their last eight games versus the Blackhawks, winning 2-1 at home on Feb. 18, 2007 in the most recent matchup.
The Blackhawks won't have left wing Ben Eager in the lineup as he serves the first of a three-game suspension for swinging his stick at Dallas left wing Sean Avery during a preseason game last week.