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Banner raising closes door on Blackhawks' latest title

by Dan Rosen

CHICAGO -- The vacancy that currently exists in the rafters at United Center, an empty space between the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup championship banners from 2010 and 2013, was hard to miss if you simply looked up Wednesday morning.

"Yeah, I noticed," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "These things don't slip by me."

He'll notice the banner that will fill the empty space Wednesday night for the rest of his life. It's part of his legacy and part of Blackhawks' lore.

"It's pretty amazing to think we've been able to put three banners up there so far," Toews said. "That is what you play for."

The 2015 championship banner that will be raised here represents the latest great accomplishment by the Blackhawks, winners of the Stanley Cup in three of the past six seasons (2010, 2013 and 2015), making them arguably the NHL's newest dynasty, depending on how one defines a dynasty.

It also represents a last hurrah.

The players received their lavish, diamond-studded rings Sunday night and will bring the Stanley Cup on the ice as part of the banner-raising ceremony prior to their season-opener against the New York Rangers (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

"That all goes to immortalizing what our team accomplished last year," Toews said.

But once the banner is up, the celebration stops. The puck will drop on a new season, and the grind the Blackhawks know all too well begins again.

Starting anew with the memories of past glory still so fresh can be hard. The Blackhawks know all about that. They are 1-1 in games played immediately after banner-raising ceremonies.

Chicago lost 3-2 to the Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 9, 2010 and defeated the Washington Capitals 6-4 on Oct. 1, 2013.

The Blackhawks are actually the only championship team in the past five seasons to win on the night the Stanley Cup banner went up. They ruined the Los Angeles Kings' first banner-raising ceremony night at the start of the 2012-13 season by winning 5-2 at Staples Center. The San Jose Sharks crashed L.A.'s party last season with a 4-0 win. The Philadelphia Flyers did the same to the Boston Bruins in 2011.

"Certainly to me, the importance of the two points starts in game one," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "That's where we're at. We have to find out about some people. We've had some guys on lines where we're trying some things. We expect that to hopefully work out in our favor. I don't think you want to just say we had the banner ceremony so we'll see how it works. Let's make it work."

To make it work, Chicago will have to quickly get acclimated to having new players in its lineup while getting used to not having forwards Brad Richards, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Antoine Vermette and Kris Versteeg, and defensemen Johnny Oduya and Kimmo Timonen. All seven have since left Chicago via trade, free agency or retirement in the case of Timonen.

Forwards Ryan Garbutt, Kyle Baun and Artem Anisimov, along with defenseman Trevor Daley, will be making their Blackhawks debuts against the Rangers. Forward Viktor Tikhonov and defenseman Ville Pokka will have to wait for their debuts as they are expected to be scratched.

All six, along with several other players Chicago had in training camp that were recently sent to Rockford of the American Hockey League or cut from professional tryout contracts, have for weeks been hearing stories about the past and listening to plans for a ceremony that has nothing to do with them.

"It reaches a point where they probably get sick of hearing about it, and I think the guys that were on the team last year are ready to move on," Toews said. "The time is tonight and we'll be ready to play."

But first, they'll fill a hole in the rafters with a piece of cloth that represents history, which is exactly what last season is now for the Blackhawks.

"That was definitely the toughest Cup we had to win or try to win," Quenneville said. "It was a tough one. It seemed like it was never going to end. So it was hard-earned and it will be nice to reflect, but then let's turn the switch."


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