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Defending champions rounding into form

Thursday, 03.03.2011 / 5:33 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Defending champions rounding into form
Chicago was in danger of not making the playoffs a couple of weeks ago, but the Blackhawks are starting to look like a worthy Cup contender again after six straight victories.
CHICAGO -- Has the unbeatable attitude that spread like wildfire through the Blackhawks' dressing room last spring finally returned?

Admitting it publically is too difficult, especially when they closely study how the final 20 minutes of their last two games unfolded with Minnesota and Calgary creating some scary moments for the Hawks and their fans. Believing it is different, and albeit in a very quiet way, that's definitely what is at least now starting to happen.

Chicago has won six straight games and is 8-1-2 in the last 11 to climb from 11th to fourth in the Western Conference.

"We've been looking for a run like this all season long," Patrick Sharp said following Chicago's latest win, 6-4 against Calgary on Wednesday.

The rise has been special, but the fall can still be great. It could take only two or three losses for the Hawks to drop back to where they were two weeks ago, but the overall feeling in their business-like dressing room is the worst is behind them even though they have arguably the most difficult schedule down the stretch of any team in the NHL.

"I don't know if we can come to the rink thinking we can't lose, but we're definitely a confident team," Sharp said. "I think everyone will say we've been a confident team all year, it's just that we've had a tough time putting a good stretch of games together. I think it comes down to knowing the importance of the games and doing the right things out there."

Does that mean the Hawks were doing the wrong things? Maybe, but it's more likely that they just weren't doing the right things well enough.

For instance, nobody believes captain Jonathan Toews is doing anything wrong on the ice, but when he's not scoring he's not enough of a factor. Toews has been red hot for more than a month and has 13 points over the last six games, even though he insists nothing has changed other his confidence.

"He's been a monster," coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's at that level now where he's a force."

For five months the Blackhawks couldn't get more than two lines going at the same time. There were chemistry issues and role players like Viktor Stalberg, Jake Dowell, Bryan Bickell and Troy Brouwer trying to find their way. Dave Bolland was also struggling to go from being a standout No. 3 checking center to a No. 2 scoring pivot.

It needs to be remembered that Chicago won last season in part because guys like Bolland, Brouwer, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager and Tomas Kopecky had niche roles. Stalberg, Dowell, Bickell, Brouwer, Kopecky and even guys like Ryan Johnson, Fernando Pisani and newcomer Michael Frolik had to establish in what ways they could be contribute to the club this season.

It appears they may finally have it down.

"I think that's a fair statement and it did take some time," Hawks GM Stan Bowman told NHL.com in a phone interview Thursday. "The one thing I talked to our guys about and our coaches earlier in the year was it doesn't happen overnight. As much as you'd like to have these things sorted out back in the fall, when you have a new group like we had this year it takes time before everyone really settles into what they can do to help the team.

"Last year's group had been together for the most part for a couple of years. They didn't get thrown together last year and win the Cup. It took time. As much as you want to accelerate it, I don't know if you can."

The obvious chemistry among the current line combinations appears, for now at least, to have answered another a huge question mark.

Anybody could have predicted that Toews with Patrick Kane and Sharp would work wonders in the short term, but they've been together for almost a month and they're averaging four points a game during the six-game winning streak.

"One of the best things about all three of us is we're never really satisfied -- always trying to do more and be even better," Kane said. "We all look at each other and say one is more competitive than the other, as far as trying to score goals and make plays. We play simple. We play hard. We get on the puck, try to strip pucks, get pucks back and let our skill take over."

"The one thing I talked to our guys about and our coaches earlier in the year was it doesn't happen overnight. As much as you'd like to have these things sorted out back in the fall, when you have a new group like we had this year it takes time before everyone really settles into what they can do to help the team."
-- Chicago GM Stan Bowman

Quenneville wouldn't be able to stick with the All-Star trio without Bolland's response in a No. 2 role. A former high scorer in junior hockey, Bolland is starting to look every bit as comfortable in his new role as he was in his checking role last season. His right wing, Marian Hossa, has benefitted and has scored a goal in each of the last five games.

"You have to remember that Dave was a high-scoring guy in junior with London, but he re-defined his game when he got to the pro level," Bowman said. "He had been in that mode for a few years now where he was the third line, responsible, pest, tough guy to play against. This year his role has expanded a bit more and he's now approaching things differently. We needed him to step up and he's done it."

Corey Crawford put aside concerns in net long ago. He's been one of the secrets to the Hawks' success all season, and despite starting nine straight games and playing nearly six times as many NHL games as he played over his previous four professional seasons the 26-year-old goalie says he feels great.

"I'm taking care of myself, getting rest and being smart about it," Crawford said. "It's fun playing hockey right now."

It's fun to be a Blackhawk again, and the dark path to the end of this wild Western Conference race doesn't scare anyone in the dressing room.

"When you're looking at yourself in 11th or 12th place and the teams in 13th and 14th are right behind you, you start second guessing yourself," Kane said. "That's about the time we decided to look around the room at ourselves and say, 'Enough is enough.' "

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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