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One Minute Remaining: Lucky #13?

by Harvey Wittenberg / Chicago Blackhawks
Signals for a lucky 13th season at the United Center are shining bright for the Blackhawks when they resume the longest NHL rivalry October 6 against Detroit.

The home opener will mark the 690th regular season clash between the Red Wings and Blackhawks, with the Hawks holding a 156-133-51-3 edge on Chicago ice.

Hawks coach Denis Savard knows that the key to making the playoffs will be to establish a winning record on home ice. Only once in the Hawks' last four trips to the post-season did the team finish below .500 at the United Center while managing a winning mark on the road (1996-97).

Another interesting note concerns the fact that the last three trips to the playoffs came when the Hawks opened the season on the road with a victory. So the opener on October 4 at Minnesota could provide another indicator.

Key injuries the past two years to start the season sank efforts for a good start and Savard hopes that staying healthy and a slightly better October home schedule will be a big difference.

The Hawks will have 7 of 12 starts at the United Center in October. Despite the usual long November road trip, only half will be out West with the other three against Central Division foes. Through the end of December, the Hawks have 22 games on home ice and 15 on the road.

Savard knows one of his many challenges this year will be an improved power play. While the penalty killers have been in the top half of the NHL the past two seasons, scoring with a man advantage has been at the bottom.

A healthy Martin Havlat to go with veterans Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault and Sergei Samsonov, plus improvements by Tuomo Ruutu, Patrick Sharp and many newcomers should provide that extra power play spark.

Chicago faces 20 sets of back-to-back games. In 17 situations last season, the Hawks were 5-9-3 in the openers and 6-10-1 in the nightcaps.

The back-to-backs include seven situations with both games on the road; 10 with the first game on the road and the second at home; and only three times with the opener at home and the nightcap on enemy ice.

The two longest homestands are four games each in the first half of the schedule -- November 4-11 and December 5-12 -- while the two long road trips consist of six games in November and seven tilts between January 30 and February 14.

The importance of division rivalry will be tested at the end of the schedule. The Hawks' last eight games are all against Central Division teams with three of the final four at the United Center.

The Hawks' first of four clashes against defending Stanley Cup champ Anaheim will be on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7 at the United Center. But the only meeting against the other cup finalist will be on the road at Ottawa on December 22.

Winding up the first month of the campaign above .500 could be a key barometer to being a playoff team. Chicago has failed only once to make post-season in the past 12 years at the United Center (2002-03) when finishing October above .500.

Here's hoping the 13th campaign at the United Center proves to be the "lucky" return to the playoffs for the Hawks!

See you at the home opener October 6 against the Red Wings and maybe sooner with a special peek of the team during the preseason games beginning September 19 against division foe Columbus.

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