DENVER—By winning their sixth game in a row here Friday night, the Blackhawks officially said no to Michigan, at least during Round One of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Detroit Red Wings, who visit the United Center for Sunday’s finale of the regular schedule, will go somewhere else to commence their post-season. Somewhere far from Chicago. Somewhere far from Detroit, too.
Duty compels me to report that this circumstance probably does not disappoint Blackhawk fans, who are accomplished and experienced at worrying. The team’s recent surge has calmed nerves that were fraying only a couple weeks ago, but there’s always the Detroit thing to ponder. Until the Red Wings aren’t around anymore, they’ll always be lurking, even if they’re actually lurking in Vancouver.
Here’s a healthier choice: Consider that with two more goals by Colin Fraser, the Blackhawks toasted the Colorado Avalanche 5-2 and now need only to beat the Red Wings Sunday to clinch first place in the conference and home ice throughout, regardless of how the San Jose Sharks fare Saturday against visiting Phoenix. The Blackhawks have 111 points, with two more on the table. If you left the Blackhawks years ago when they were down and out, you come back to see they’ve put 111 points on the board and it’s got to be a typographical error, right?
Wait, I think Fraser just scored again. He’s 24, but get this - in a recent Q&A for the Blackhawks Standbys newsletter, general manager Stan Bowman was asked which of the current players he could envison becoming a coach. Bowman, without hesitation, nominated Fraser. I repeat, Fraser is only 24. It’s not like Bowman is talking about a veteran who suffers hardened arteries and is checking want ads. Bowman admires Fraser’s hockey intellect, and Fraser is not afraid to address the subject.
“I’m not a superstar by any means, so I have to pay attention to details and systems,” said Fraser. “I have to do the little things. And it’s nice to hear that someone like Stan Bowman would think of me in those terms. It’s even something I’ve discussed with my wife, Carli. We were married last July and we’ve talked about what I might wind up doing down the road, after I’m playing. Coaching would definitely appeal to me. I never went to college. I hope to play as long as I can, but I do think about it occasionally… what am I going to do next?”
The Blackhawks gathered a 3-0 lead, the third tally being from Patrick Sharp after Peter Budaj, Colorado’s backup netminder, had difficulty surrounding the puck as he reached upward. Maybe he lost it in the lights. The Avs rallied to within 3-2, but Fraser quickly responded with his second toward a victory that was not a work of art. It was serviceable, however, and the high-altitude Blackhawks might return to the mountains soon.
Tony Ommen, the brains and brawn behind team travel arrangements, entered the weekend with multiple room reservations covering all first round playoff possibilities. Although he scratched Detroit from the list Friday evening, Ommen is holding space for the Blackhawks in Nashville, Los Angeles and here in Denver.
There was an era, not too long ago, when the only reservations this team made after the regular season were tee times. If you wanted to see your favorite Chicago hockey players during the playoffs, it was easy. Just go to the golf course and wait for them to show up. By mid-June, when the Stanley Cup was decided, the Blackhawks led the league in suntans.
So the current “problem” is quite a welcome one. Besides, as Ommen points out, somebody will occupy those rooms. It’s not like participating hotels are going to be stuck with all those miniature bottles of shampoo that you can never seem to open. If the Blackhawks, for instance, don’t visit Denver again after opening the first series at home, another team will be here.
Should the Blackhawks wind up returning to Colorado, they won’t have to cultivate too many new fans. Friday night’s audience was liberally sprinkled with Blackhawks jerseys, chants for the visitors were common and each goal by the guests was roundly applauded. Only hours after the Colorado Rockies staged their home opener on a sunkissed afternoon, there were also rows of empty chairs in the Pepsi Center.
The Blackhawks could do worse than a redux to Denver, although it might be argued that no playoff team will encounter less pressure than the Avalanche. Colorado’s roster is young, last year’s team bombed and this winter’s edition was not thought to be playoff worthy. But the Avs are in and quite possibly destined for the United Center next week to meet Colin Fraser and all the gang. The deeper the Blackhawks are, the deeper they could go into May or June.