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Blackhawks kids are growing up quickly

Thursday, 05.28.2009 / 10:57 AM / Conference Finals: Detroit vs. Chicago

By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer

DETROIT -- When a team as young and promising as the Chicago Blackhawks advances all the way to the Western Conference Finals before being eliminated by the defending champion Detroit Red Wings, it's easy look on the bright side.

You'd have to turn to the cast of "Friday Night Lights" to find more fresh-faced talent under the age of 25. Jonathan Toews (21), Patrick Kane (20), Dustin Byfuglien (24), Kris Versteeg (23) and Brent Seabrook (24) are key parts of the young core that carried the Blackhawks to the NHL's Final Four.

Even after a season-ending 2-1 loss in overtime to the Red Wings in Game 5 Wednesday night, there's every reason to think the best has yet to come in Chicago.

One Web site that makes its living off prognostications gave Chicago the same chance of winning the Cup this year as it did to the Toronto Maple Leafs. More common was the feeling that the Blackhawks could contend for a playoff spot -- something they hadn't managed since 2002. But a trip to the NHL's Final Four? No way.

"I think it has been a hell of a ride," Seabrook said. "I think at the same time, we worked hard for it and we just have to keep our heads up."

For defenseman Duncan Keith, who is just 25, it was difficult to enjoy such an unexpected season with the wounds of the Game 5 loss still so fresh.

"It's hard to look back and say that," Keith said when asked if he could take pride in the Blackhawks' surprising run to the conference finals. "It's over and done with now. We'll take some time to relax now and look to improve upon this next year because next year's gonna be even harder."

Hawks coach Joel Quenneville was pleased with what his young team accomplished.

"I think we should all be proud of the year we had," said Quenneville, who took over after Denis Savard was fired four games into the season. "These kids have been great all year long. They matured. They developed. … We got to find out what playoff hockey is all about."

The scary thing for teams is the Blackhawks are progressing ahead of schedule.

Toews, the Blackhawks' captain, had 34 goals and 35 assists for 69 points in his sophomore campaign, bettering his rookie numbers (24-30-54). Kane's 72 points last season and 70 this season showed his consistency. Versteeg was a revelation in his rookie season; his 22 goals and 31 assists earned him a spot as a Calder Trophy finalist.

Seabrook continued to anchor a young blue line and stepped up his game in his first postseason. Another young defenseman, Cam Barker, put up career-highs in points (40) and games played (68).

And to think, all this success came after a tumultuous start to a season that saw a coaching change and underachieving play.

One of the major causes for the early-season hiccup was a slow start by goalie Cristobal Huet, who won just three of his first 10 starts after a signing a lucrative free-agent deal last summer.

A shakeup behind the bench and a struggling high-priced goalie usually are signs of tough times ahead. But for the Blackhawks, they were the start of a memorable season -- thanks in part to a veteran goalie who many thought had no place in Chicago.

If there was a trade rumor at the start of the season, chances are, Nikolai Khabibulin was involved in it. After the Blackhawks signed Huet, it seemed only logical that they'd part ways with Khabibulin -- they even put him on waivers, only to see him go unclaimed.

Instead, all Khabibulin did was win 25 games, finish third in the League in goals-against average (2.33) and sixth in save percentage (.919). As one of the few veterans on a team full of up-and-comers, Khabibulin was someone the kids could lean on during the regular season.

"You know, the best measuring stick, we went up against the best, and the lesson you can learn is that you don't just win the Cup and think you're the best team. You've got to go prove it. We should learn something from them."
-- Joel Quenneville

"He's awesome. He's a competitor and he's a confident guy in what he's able to do," Toews recently said of Khabibulin. "He's a heck of a player. He's been a guy we've leaned on. We're a young team that makes mistakes and had off-nights in the regular season and he's been there when we needed him and he's been the same way in the postseason here too."

Another veteran who made a huge difference was 28-year-old Martin Havlat, who finally stayed healthy for an entire season and led the Blackhawks in scoring with 77 points in 81 games. Free-agent signee Brian Campbell, at the ripe old age of 30, led all Blackhawks defensemen with 45 assists and 52 points.

After a slow start over the first two months (10-6-6), everything changed in December. The Blackhawks found their stride, going 10-1-1, and rode the momentum to their first playoff berth in seven years -- then went all the way to the conference finals, where the experience of the Red Wings proved too much.

But don't start thinking that getting ousted by the Red Wings is going to do anything to hurt the confidence of the Blackhawks.

"We've got a good team here. We always believed in ourselves," Keith said. "We believed we could beat this team and obviously they're the defending champs. We were still in it every game and we had three of the five games go to overtime. It's something we gotta learn for next year."

Quenneville said the loss to the Wings should be a valuable learning experience.

"You know, the best measuring stick, we went up against the best, and the lesson you can learn is that you don't just win the Cup and think you're the best team," he said. "You've got to go prove it. We should learn something from them."

Contact Dave Lozo at dlozo@nhl.com


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