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Blackhawks beginning to feel like winners again

Friday, 01.21.2011 / 12:02 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Blackhawks beginning to feel like winners again
As the football team in town aims for the Super Bowl, the buzz in Chicago that surrounded the Blackhawks last season is starting to return with the club beginning to hit its stride.
They've established consistency in their forward lines and defense pairs. Their goaltenders are giving them a chance in every game. Their coaches have confidence in the role players, all of them no-names to start the season.

Chicago is hoping to celebrate a conference championship in a different sport this weekend, but that Bears buzz has leaked into the Blackhawks' dressing room and the reigning champs in the Windy City, in the NHL, are starting to play like winners again.

The Blackhawks have won four of their last five games, picking up nine out of a possible 10 points during the stretch and 11 out of a possible 16 points in January.

They've put together stretches of three straight wins and four straight wins this season, but those have been followed by mini-losing streaks. Captain Jonathan Toews says this time it feels different, like the Blackhawks are ready to take flight and be that consistent force again.

 
"When we do play well we've shown we can be one of the best teams in the League, and right now everyone realizes that it's unacceptable to have any more nights off," Toews told NHL.com. "It's all about accountability and not letting each other off the hook. We're giving ourselves a better chance to win games that way."

Toews never lost hope. He figured the Hawks would eventually get their feet under them this season, that they would eventually start to resemble a championship squad even though they are missing several key pieces from the team that won the Stanley Cup last season.

He actually thought it would take until the All-Star break for them to get it right, to get on the same page.

He might be right.

"All year we've been trying to shake that, to not focus on the changes or what we were last year," Toews said. "A lot of the guys, this is their first season on the Blackhawks, and we were all sick and tired of hearing about last year. We were ready to move on and see what we can do as a team this year. I think the fans have realized that we've got some new faces and these are the guys that they have to cheer for, these are the guys that are going to help us win another championship."

Toews is talking about guys like Jack Skille, a former first-round pick who is flourishing in his fourth-line role with 16 points this season. He's talking about players like Bryan Bickell and Fernando Pisani, the wingers who flank center Dave Bolland to make up one of the best checking lines in the NHL.

Bickell, who is getting his first real crack at full-time NHL duty, has 12 goals and 26 points in 44 games. Pisani has chipped in with 7 goals and 13 points over 37 games.

Toews is also referring to guys like Viktor Stalberg and Jake Dowell, who have combined for 31 points and are playing with Skille on that fourth line that is still earning valuable minutes because of its speed. Rookie defenseman Nick Leddy also has averaged about 14 minutes in each of the last five games.

Yes, the Hawks success is dictated by their best players such as Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, but they won last season because the role players made themselves such a significant part of the team.

That's happening again, only the cast is different.

"For most of us we went through what we did last year and there were really no ups and downs, it was a straightforward season, a really good season overall," Kane told NHL.com. "This season it's been up and down, but now we have everyone healthy and playing pretty good. We have two really good scoring lines and probably one of the best shutdown lines in the NHL. And we have a fourth line this year that's as fast as any line in the NHL."

So is that championship feel back?

"It feels like it is," Kane said. "Everyone is excited about playing again and everyone is healthy."

Everyone also realizes the standings as of Friday show the Blackhawks in seventh place in the West with 54 points, four shy of fourth but just one off from 10th. Another mini-losing streak could knock them out of the top eight and all of this momentum, this championship vibe, will be gone.

They have three games before the All-Star break -- three essential games in four days against Detroit, Philadelphia and Minnesota -- to make sure they're set up for the stretch run.

"We don't panic, but we don't want to wait any longer than we have to get down to it," Toews said. "I think everything is coming together, but we definitely have to keep working if we want to keep this up. We're not the type of team where we can have just a couple of guys going and find a way to win."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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The groove of being behind a bench is going to be interesting at first, but thank God we have a few exhibition games to get rid of those cobwebs. Overall the excitement of it all and the freshness and coming back refreshed, all those things are going to be assets. If [the players] come ready to give their best effort in practice and games, good things are going to happen. I'm always looking for results. It's not always on the scoreboard. It's winning and building something.

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