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Verdict: Blackhawks prepared for long spring

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

When the Blackhawks opened their 2016-17 schedule on October 12, inclement weather hampered the red carpet ceremony outside the United Center, and the St. Louis Blues rained on the parade inside, winning 5-2.

Symmetry appeared to be in play, for the long-range Chicago forecast seemed partly cloudy, given the chance of participation by six rookies on the roster: Gustav Forsling, Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, Michal Kempny, Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz.

In a National Hockey League pledged to parity, could the Blackhawks possibly finish atop the Central Division and maybe even the Western Conference? At least to a fretful fan base, there would be a better chance of seeing Brent Seabrook take a faceoff in sudden death.

But the Blackhawks surprised adversaries, if not themselves, by amassing 50 victories for only the second time in franchise history, and their 109 points were just three shy of the most-ever for the organization. Thus, with all that kinetic energy joining a locker room populated by decorated veterans, the Blackhawks secured the No. 1 seed in the conference as the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Thursday against the Nashville Predators.

Nothing is easy, but by catching and lapping the Minnesota Wild, the Blackhawks even managed to rest individuals during the home stretch - a bonus. But consider how the Blackhawks concluded the 82-game grind in Los Angeles on Saturday. Not only were Forsling, Hartman and Schmaltz in the lineup, but so were Tanner Kero, who came up to the big club before Christmas and stayed; Dennis Rasmussen, who made 44 starts the previous season; and John Hayden, who arrived from Yale in mid-March with term papers still to be written and immediately aced his crash course in pro hockey.

Speaking of which, Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman nailed this redecorating project. He foresaw that some of these kids in the pipeline were ready, and he was right. Meanwhile, he acquired experience to fortify a deep defense - Brian Campbell during the offseason and Johnny Oduya at the trade deadline. There is a cap on salaries in the NHL, but no ceiling on front office ingenuity.

As is his wont, Head Coach Joel Quenneville and staff sorted out the new blood, mixed and matched, then calmly nurtured growth and balance. The Blackhawks registered a franchise-record eight straight road conquests and 24 total. Six players scored 20 or more goals. Hartman, effective and edgy, contributed 19.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were reliably excellent, as was Artemi Panarin, who captured the Calder Trophy a year ago. Sophomore jinx? Nyet. He scored 31, including one off the head of Richard Panik, who assisted while embedded in the net. He had 22 while upright, and Marian Hossa doubled his output of the year before, from 13 to 26. Artem Anisimov posted a career-high 22.

That the Blackhawks wound up 27 games over .500 with a relatively modest goal differential of plus-31 tells a story the rest of the league knows all too well. Whatever it takes, this group finds a way, whether via Corey Crawford and Scott Darling, who authored several goalie wins, or savvy on the blue line. Duncan Keith and Seabrook became the seventh and eighth men to play 900 games for the franchise. They, along with Niklas Hjalmarsson, have three Stanley Cup rings each, as do Toews, Kane and Hossa.

The Blackhawks earned their most recent championship in 2015 after defeating Nashville 4-2 in the First Round. Their first postseason meeting was fraught with danger. The teams split the first four games of the 2010 Conference Quarterfinals, and the Blackhawks were in serious trouble late in Game 5 at the United Center.

They trailed 4-3 when Hossa incurred a 5-minute major penalty with 1:03 remaining in the third period. The Predators, who had a habit of clinging to foes like lint, needed only to hang on, then head home for a potential clincher. But Kane pounced on a turnover and scored a shorthanded goal with 13.6 seconds left. Then, in overtime, Hossa tallied just 11 seconds after doing his penance.

The Blackhawks advanced with a 5-3 conquest two nights later in Nashville, then vanquished the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Philadelphia Flyers to bring Chicago its first Stanley Cup since 1961. Several Blackhawks cited the two-week taffy pull against the Predators as the fulcrum.

This postseason features seven teams that missed out last year, including five from Canada, which went dry last spring. How tough is the neighborhood? Two teams with 94 points did not qualify. Volatility reigns, but for all their fresh faces, the Blackhawks need no introduction. They are in for a ninth straight season, and among the favorites to run the table.

And yes, Seabrook was summoned for an emergency appearance at the faceoff dot in Tampa a few weeks ago. Whatever it takes.

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