-- A choppy run through March didn't change the Chicago Blackhawks
' plans. This young team insists it is ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and better prepared for a long run this year than it was last year.
They better be because the Blackhawks aren't the happy-go-lucky underdogs anymore. Fans in the Windy City are expecting to see their hockey team parade the Stanley Cup down Michigan Avenue in mid-June.
"We know there is a lot of pressure on us and it's growing every single day," said captain Jonathan Toews
, whose distorted image is depicted next to one of the Stanley Cup on a billboard in Chicago. "Obviously it's much different than last year, but to us nothing has changed. It's always about how we play and what we can control in this locker room. If we can keep going forward with that attitude we're going to be fine."
The Hawks clinched their first division title since 1993 on Sunday when Detroit lost at Philadelphia, but outside of a press release issued by the team, the division title only caused a minor stir throughout Chicago.
Winning the division this season was basically a foregone conclusion, at least in the minds of the Hawks' voluminous fans, since the close of business last season. From training camp until now, the Blackhawks have been preparing for what is supposed to be a fantastic spring that turns into a summer of global partying.
"With our team, we have so many skilled players and so many good players that have been in the Olympics, won Olympics and been in the Cup Final and won Cups," Patrick Kane
told NHL.com. "People expect us to get there and obviously we expect that, too."
The Blackhawks feel they can embrace lofty expectations this season because they have experience. A year ago, Olympians like Kane, Toews, Duncan Keith
and Brent Seabrook
had no idea what playoff hockey was all about.
"Now we know what to expect as opposed to going into the playoffs and not really knowing how big the games were going to be," Seabrook told NHL.com. "The media, the whole thing, it was pretty overwhelming for a young team. I think we did a great job doing our part and just worrying about hockey, but this year we know what to expect."
As true as that is, Toews cautioned that the experienced Blackhawks still haven't proven anything. That's going to be part of their next test, their next challenge.
"It's up to us to think about what we could do differently to be better," he said. "Obviously it's been a long year and we feel we're a much better team and we have grown in many ways, but again, when that opportunity arises, when it gets tough for us, we have to know that we're going to be ready and really take advantage of the opportunity."
First, the Blackhawks want to put themselves in the best position possible for a long run. They enter Tuesday's game in Dallas just two points behind San Jose for first in the Western Conference, but they have a game in hand and one more win than the Sharks.
Then again, finishing first in the West after the regular season doesn't mean a million fans will run for a curbside spot along the "Magnificent Mile." That will only happen if after two grueling months of playoff hockey these Chicago Blackhawks
are standing alone.
They insist they can do it. They insist they're ready for the challenge.
They better be.
"After the Olympics everyone was looking forward to the playoffs, but we had 21 games left and these 21 games have been going pretty slow. Now it's starting to come to an end and guys are ready. We're starting to get excited. Guys are playing well and ready to go."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl