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Blackhawks develop snarl as they prep for Red Wings

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- There were angry words exchanged, slashes traded and what appeared to be an invitation to fight before Chicago Blackhawks teammates Daniel Carcillo and Jamal Mayers were separated by Duncan Keith.

And that was just the end of practice Tuesday, which saw the Blackhawks go through another day of preparations at United Center as they get ready to host the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday in Game 1 of a Western Conference Semifinal series (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

Asked about the incident afterward, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville cracked a smile for the first time during his Tuesday press conference. Was he concerned about teammates quarreling one day before a rivalry-fueled series begins?

"Not concerned," said Quenneville, who had said he wasn't pleased with his team's intensity level against the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. "I've seen many of those. The word … I don't know if it's 'healthy' … but I think it shows how competitive it is. Guys want to play. You know, I've seen it escalate to a different level, as well. I thought that [one] was kind of on the friendly side. I wouldn't consider it that bad."

In fact, it kind of sounded like he thought it was a good sign.

There's no question Quenneville wants the Blackhawks on the edge for this series, playing with passion and some anger when the puck gets dropped against the Red Wings -- a team they went 4-0-0 against this season and blew out 7-1 on Easter Sunday in Detroit.

The other three games all took longer than 60 minutes to decide, though, with two ending in a shootout. Quenneville knows that fresh off an upset of the Anaheim Ducks in the first round, the Red Wings will be out to set things straight.

So he started practices for this series this past weekend by putting white practice jerseys on two regular top forwards: rookie left wing Brandon Saad and speedy 27-year old right wing Viktor Stalberg.

Saad has since regained his red practice jersey and spot on the top line, but Stalberg remained out of the top four lines during line rushes Tuesday and didn't sound pleased by it afterward.

"I don't really have anything to say about it," he said. "Ask [Quenneville]."

Quenneville said a decision about Stalberg hasn't been made for Game 1, but issued the advice to "stay ready" and "make decisions tough on us."

Again, it's an undertone of tension, which Quenneville seems to like heading into this series. Not only will it be the final time the Original Six rivals face each other as members of the same conference -- Detroit is headed to the Eastern Conference next season -- it's also an opportunity for Quenneville and the core group of Blackhawks who lost to Detroit in the 2009 Western Conference Finals to oust the Red Wings from the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time.

That 2009 series, which the Red Wings won in five games, still resonates with some of the Blackhawks who were around for it. Quenneville hasn't beaten Detroit in the playoffs in five opportunities with three different teams.

The Red Wings ended his season in 1997, 1998 and 2002 with the St. Louis Blues, 2008 with the Colorado Avalanche, and that 2009 series with the Blackhawks. Detroit won the Stanley Cup in each of those years but 2009, when the Red Wings lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games in the Final.

A year later, it was Quenneville and the Blackhawks hoisting the Cup without having to play the Red Wings. Now they're set to face off again.

"Winning the Cup, you've got to take on the best comers," Quenneville said. "We had a good chance [to beat Detroit] five years ago and we didn't face [each other] since then. I don't think the series was as dominating as 4-1 against us, but it was a good learning curve for us. A young team learned from one of the teams that [knew] how to win … a defending Cup champ. I think there's an education there from them."

The Blackhawks apparently paid attention and took good notes. After ending a long championship drought and qualifying for the playoffs the past two seasons despite salary cap-related roster turnover, they're back in the limelight as favorites to play for the Cup again in a few weeks.

First is the matter of slaying the dragon that wears the winged wheel on its chest. The Blackhawks have proven they can do it in the regular season, dominating the Red Wings the past two seasons, but the playoffs are another story.

"They beat us in the playoffs the one year we played them," Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. "They beat us in five games, so it'd be nice to get a little redemption there and prove we can beat them in a seven-game series. They've definitely amped up their intensity a little bit and it seems like it's a team that when they really focus on getting a win, they can get it done. They're a scary team, for sure."

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