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Blackhawks working toward passing Red Wings

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO -- The question was posed to Corey Crawford after practice Friday and his answer unintentionally summed up just how much the rivalry has changed between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.

Crawford, Chicago's starting goalie, was asked about Detroit not having much stamina in the final two periods of a 4-1 loss Wednesday at United Center, the opening game of the Western Conference Semifinals. The Red Wings, who made six cross-country flights during a seven-game quarterfinal against the Anaheim Ducks, said they expect to be faster and better in Game 2 here Saturday (1 p.m., NBC, CBC).

"I don't really care, to be honest," Crawford snapped. "It's more about us. Whatever their travel is or whatever their schedule is doesn't really affect us. We expect them to play hard and to bring their best game. That's what we're preparing for."

Four years ago, when the Red Wings eliminated the Blackhawks in a five-game conference final, that kind of defiance would've drawn scoffs. Now, with the Blackhawks seeking their second Stanley Cup in four seasons, it doesn't seem out of place. Though Chicago hasn't beaten Detroit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since that 2009 clash, they haven't had the chance until now.

Meanwhile, the Blackhawks have won the 2010 Stanley Cup and taken over the rivalry against the Red Wings in the regular season. Including this Game 1 victory, Chicago has beaten Detroit eight straight times dating to last year and holds a 9-0-1 mark the past two seasons. The games have been tight, except for a 7-1 Blackhawks rout at Joe Louis Arena on Easter Sunday this year, but Chicago has come out on top far too often for it to be a fluke.

Has the pupil surpassed the teacher?

None of the Blackhawks will say that publicly, but their play against the Red Wings speaks volumes. For all the talk about the Stanley Cup Playoffs being different than the regular season, Game 1 looked an awful lot like the other four between Chicago and Detroit this season, all won by the Blackhawks.

There are still teams in the NHL that get a little awestruck when they see the Red Wings, but the one that calls "The Madhouse on Madison Street" home isn't one of them. In fact, the Blackhawks seem to draw even more resolve when they play the Red Wings, especially in the wake of Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Chris Osgood, Tomas Holmstrom, Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper retiring since 2009.

Crawford was still in the minors then, and Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were just getting their feet wet in the postseason. Marian Hossa, who plays alongside Toews on Chicago's top line, wore the winged wheel on his chest in his only season for Detroit in 2009, and the Red Wings had Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen at younger ages.

"At that time, I think we were pretty happy with where we went," Kane said. "It almost seemed like the Red Wings were, I don't want to say this, but it almost seemed like they were too good of a team to kind of get through and beat, especially when they beat us up a few games. It kind of made it a five-game series like you saw there. It was pretty intimidating."

Take Kane's individual battles, for example.

"I was matching up against guys like Lidstrom," he said. "Watching a guy like that my whole life growing up … it's pretty scary going against a guy like that for a whole seven-game series, but it was cool. It was a great experience."

It also was the first major growing pain for a Blackhawks team that's become one of the League's elite franchises. They set the Red Wings as the level they wanted to reach and now seem pretty close to getting there.

"They were the measuring stick, for sure, when we were a younger team," said Sharp, who was traded to the Blackhawks in 2005 from the Philadelphia Flyers. "They were someone that we looked up to, everything from their coaches right down to their last player was great. I can remember even further back, playing for the Flyers, rolling into Joe Louis Arena and seeing Brett Hull and [Brendan Shanahan] and Chelios. I mean, it looked like an All-Star team."

"They were the measuring stick, for sure, when we were a younger team. They were someone that we looked up to, everything from their coaches right down to their last player was great. I can remember even further back, playing for the Flyers, rolling into Joe Louis Arena and seeing Brett Hull and [Brendan Shanahan] and Chelios. I mean, it looked like an All-Star team."
-- Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp

Detroit is still in that elite conversation, despite undergoing the Red Wings' version of a makeover-on-the-fly, but it's impressive to think of how far the Blackhawks have come.

"The reality is they're good players, they've grown up," Mike Babcock, who's coached the Red Wings since 2005, said. "If you do a good job when you're a bad team, and you draft real well, you can probably ride that for eight to 10 years. You just have to be careful to be bad enough, long enough, so you get good enough."

There were snickers when he said that Wednesday, prior to Game 1 of this series, but Babcock wasn't joking.

"You may laugh at that," he said. "Your fans don't want to hear it, but if you get too good, too fast, you'll never be good enough. Stay bad enough long enough in the new world you have a chance to be real good … and that's what they did."

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and his front office -- which included two assistants who left for NHL GM positions the past two years -- also did a great job of keeping Chicago elite. They kept the team's core group of stars intact and added quality depth players under the salary cap through draft picks (Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger), trades (Nick Leddy, Michael Frolik, Johnny Oduya, Michal Handzus) and free agency (Ray Emery, Michal Rozsival, Sheldon Brookbank, Daniel Carcillo, Jamal Mayers).

That part is different than how Detroit did it for the bulk of its 22-season playoff-appearance streak. The Red Wings used to be like the New York Yankees, prior to the NHL salary cap starting in 2006-07, spending big bucks to scoop up as much talent as they could afford through free agency and trades.

The Blackhawks built themselves up entirely in the cap era and appear poised to stay there for years to come. Has the student become the professor?

It's possible, but good luck getting any of them to admit it.

"We've definitely come a long way," Toews said. "We said it before the series, that we still have something to prove against this team. As long as I've been a Blackhawk, we always say the Red Wings are kind of the measuring stick for our team, and I think that hasn't changed a bit. We're off to a good start in this series but we've got a long way to go. We know that's a team that's never going to give up. We got some momentum going, [but] we've got to keep that up in Game 2."

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