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Blackhawks a team on the rise

by Brian Compton

Rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews led a revived young Chicago Blackhawks squad to within three points of a playoff spot, and a 17-point improvement in the standings.
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They didn’t make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the Chicago Blackhawks showed signs in 2007-08 that they could be major contenders in the NHL for years to come.

With young guns Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews leading the way, fans flocked to the United Center all season. Kane, the No. 1 selection in the 2007 Draft, led the team in scoring in his rookie season with 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists), while Toews – Chicago’s first-round pick in 2006 -- ranked second on the team in goals (24) in his first season. Toews enjoyed a tremendous amount of success despite missing six weeks with a sprained left knee.

The injury to Toews may very well have been the difference between the Hawks making or missing the postseason. When the final horn sounded on the regular season, Chicago finished just three points behind the Nashville Predators for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Their performances in 2007-08 ultimately lead to them being named finalists for the Calder Trophy, which is awarded to the League’s top rookie.

"The impact Kane made to our season – he and Toews – to get us where we’re at now, was great," Blackhawks coach Denis Savard said. “They’re going to be fun for a long time.”

The Blackhawks began the season with heavy hearts, however. Just one week before opening night, longtime owner William W. Wirtz passed away at the age of 77 due to cancer. Wirtz’s father, Arthur, purchased the franchise in 1954, and William became team president in 1966. He held that post until the day he died.

But watching the young, energetic Blackhawks helped ease the pain. While Kane and Toews lead the youth movement, other emerging players such as Patrick Sharp (36 goals – seven shorthanded), Dustin Byfuglien (19-17-36) and Brent Seabrook provided fans with a reason to smile. Defenseman Duncan Keith – who finished the campaign with a plus-30 rating – was rightfully selected to the Western Conference All-Star team in January.

Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin had a strong showing, as he appeared in 50 games and posted a 2.63 GAA with two shutouts. Riding shotgun was Patrick Lalime, who won 16 games and was named a Masterton Trophy candidate for his dedication to hockey. Lalime hadn’t played in 30 NHL games in a season since the 2005-06 campaign with the St. Louis Blues.

Knowing full well his team was on the rise, Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon started locking up his players long-term during the season. Sharp – arguably one of the best two-way players in the game – signed a four-year extension in January, while defenseman Brent Sopel agreed to three more years.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to continue my career with the Blackhawks,” Sharp said. “I love the city of Chicago and the Chicago fans and I want to be here for a long time. I feel that our team has improved and continues to get better. Team success is a product of individual success and I will do everything I can to help bring a championship to the city of Chicago.”

The building continued in February, when Seabrook, 22, signed a three-year extension. The team’s first-round selection in 2003 (14th overall) finished the campaign with 32 points and a plus-13 rating.

Brent Seabrook is one of our core players and we feel he has a brilliant future,” Tallon said. “Seabrook is a big part of our team and one of our team leaders. He is going to be a major part of our success for many years to come.”

Chicago’s offense suffered a blow in March, when it was determined that Martin Havlat’s season had to come to an end. Havlat injured his left shoulder on opening night and then again in February. The four-time 20-goal scorer finished the season with just 10 goals and 17 assists in 35 games. He remains in the midst of a four-month rehabilitation process and is expected to be ready for training camp.

It was further indication of what the 2007-08 season could have been for the up-and-coming Blackhawks had they been able to stay healthy.

“We’re not going to be happy until we get to the big prize, and that’s the Stanley Cup,” Savard said. “But we’ve made some huge strides. Nobody expected us to be at 88 points. As an organization, we felt if we got to 85, it’d be a decent year for us. But our kids came along … the adversity that we had to face throughout the year, it’s been a good year. But that’s not what we’re after.”


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