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Central: Savard to foes: "Go ahead, make my day"

by Larry Wigge /

Forwards Jonathan Toews (left) and Patrick Kane (right) are two of several players who are new to the Chicago Blackhawks this season.
In order to win the battles it takes to succeed in hockey, a team needs a few pretty potent weapons.

"There were times last season when ... "

Chicago Blackhawks coach Denis Savard’s hands went up in the air after one of the team’s final preseason games as if to say: “What could I do?”

I chimed in, "I guess it was like having Martin Havlat, a hope and a prayer."

"Exactly,” Savard said. “And some nights we didn’t even have Marty."

This season, Savard and the Blackhawks have lots of options. Old and young. So don’t let that 1-0 loss in Minnesota on opening night fool you.

"You can feel the confidence in this group and you can see the depth ... and skill," said Havlat, who no longer feels like a new guy in Chicago anymore. "There’s competition at every position. We didn’t have that last year. We’ve definitely got more players who can score goals."

Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon brought in veteran forwards Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault, Sergei Samsonov, Kevyn Adams and defenseman Andrei Zyuzin in trades and free agency to supplement a roster that finished with a 31-42-9 record last season, last in the Central Division. It’s almost like Jason Williams, who was obtained from Detroit at the trading deadline, is new as well.

But most of the buzz is about the young draft choices Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the team’s first-round picks the last two years.

"Jonathan and Patrick are incredibly talented kids, the kind of weapons we didn’t have last year," Havlat said. "And Adam Burish (the team’s last pick in the 2002 draft), well, he’s pushing everyone on this team to make a job for himself.

"You can even see how competitive this team is going to be in practice."

There were 12 new faces in the lineup on Thursday (and that doesn’t count Toews, who was still recovering from a broken finger on his right hand).

Havlat delivered the impact that was expected of him last season after the Blackhawks acquired him last July 10 in a three-team trade involving Ottawa and San Jose. He had 25 goals and 32 assists in just 56 games, missing several games down the stretch with a shoulder injury that he spent most of the summer rehabbing.

"That’s how my career has gone," Havlat said. "Big injuries have ruined a lot of my seasons ... in Ottawa and here. Bad luck. But I feel like things are changing for me ... and the team.

"Last year, everything was new for me. New team. New city. New teammates. This year, I feel like Chicago is home."

There was no soccer, no tennis this summer -- things he likes to do in the off-season to relax and have fun. The doctors keeping track of his injured shoulder wouldn’t allow Martin to play those sports. Havlat began his rehab already in May and he begins this season nine pounds stronger.

"Hopefully," he said, knocking on wood, "this will be my season. This will be our season."

The Blackhawks haven’t made it to the playoffs since 2002, but there is a feeling around this team that something good is about to happen.

It’s like Tallon and Savard have dumped a lot of extra baggage and hand-picked the players they’ve brought in.

Late in the season, Savard predicted that at least 10 of the players from Chicago's last-place lineup would be gone at the start of this season. The list of departed players included Radim Vrbata, whose 41 points were 16 below what team leader Havlat put up in just 56 games, Jeffrey Hamilton, Denis Arkhipov, Tony Salmelainen, Adrian Aucoin, Peter Bondra, Michal Handzus, Jassen Cullimore, Nikita Alexeev and Mikael Holmqvist.

After a come-from-behind 5-4 victory in the final three minutes of a game in St. Louis in the preseason, Savard couldn’t help but smile.

"I’ve often dreamed that if I ever got a chance to coach in the NHL I would want a smart group of players, players who would listen and be flexible," Savard laughed. "I know this is just the preseason. But I went into that locker room after the second period and changed a lot of things we were doing. It could have blown up in my face. Heck, I know it would have last season.

"But this group went out there and made every adjustment we talked about in the intermission. You are looking at one happy coach."

Baby steps.

Savard and Tallon watched a young defense grow last season with the burgeoning skills of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, the highly competitive nature of James Wisniewski and Jim Vandermeer. And Tallon added experience to that mix with Zyuzin, Swedish veteran Magnus Johansson and Brent Sopel.

A steadier group in front of goaltenders Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime.

"And more firepower," Tallon said. "I think you’ll see a brand new Khabby in goal for us. He won’t have to try to win games 1-0 and 2-1. It takes a lot of pressure off our goalies to not have to go out there and basically shut out the opposition in order for us to win.

"We’ve definitely got more options to try. More competition."

A lot more weapons.

Around the Central -- Here’s the first clue that this year’s Detroit Red Wings are a lot different from the start of last season. Henrik Zetterberg scored just 18 seconds into Detroit’s first power play of the season and then set up linemate Tomas Holmstrom for another man-advantage tally. Last season, the Red Wings struggled to score on the power play -- ranking last or next-to-last -- for most of the first couple months. ... Jiri Hudler is still small, but the diminutive Czech Republic winger has always been very, very skilled and scored everywhere he has played (he had 36 goals, 61 assists in 76 games at Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League in 2005-06). And now, for the first time, he has been put into a big-minute, pressure situation to score in Detroit with the departures of Todd Bertuzzi and Kyle Calder in the off-season. Knowing his flair for the dramatic at other levels, it wasn’t surprising to see Hudler calmly fake Anaheim goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov down, go to his backhand and lift the puck top shelf for the shootout winner in the Red Wings’ home-opening 3-2 victory over the Ducks Oct. 3. ... Most of the speculation in Nashville this summer centered on whether super rookie Alexander Radulov would replace departed Paul Kariya on the Predators’ No. 1 line with David Legwand and Martin Erat or if he would fill-in on the No. 2 line with Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont while Steve Sullivan recovers until December from back surgery. Vern Fiddler quickly showed great production in the preseason with Arnott and Dumont -- and each of those players finished with two points in the Preds’ season-opening 4-0 victory over Colorado Oct. 4. But Jed Ortmeyer wound up winning the No. 1 line gig. You remember Ortmeyer? With the New York Rangers, he was one of those effort guys, a real hitter and shot blocker. After coughing up blood in a pre-training camp workout, he sought out team doctors and was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, a potentially life-threatening blood clot in his lung. It was actually the second run-in with a blood clot for Ortmeyer, who'd experienced one six years earlier after knee surgery in college. He didn’t get back on the ice in games until early January. After being signed on the second day of free agency by the Preds, now here he is on the No. 1 line. The most goals he’s scored in the NHL? Five (with the Rangers in 2005-06). Jed did have 18 goals in his last season at the University of Michigan in 2002-03. And Radulov? He’s being paired with veteran newcomers Radek Bonk and Martin Gelinas. ... New leadership in Nashville? In the opener, Arnott, the new captain, had two goals, Dumont, one of the assistants, had one, and defenseman Dan Hamhuis, wearing the “A” destined for injured Steve Sullivan, had the team’s fourth goal. ... Now that the Blues have their road opener out of the way, look for them to be better this season. A 3-2 loss in Phoenix on opening night Oct. 4 gave St. Louis an 0-6-3 road-opening record since they last opened the season on the road with a win in 1996. ... One player who seems ready to go for the Blues this season is Keith Tkachuk. Two years ago, he was suspended for reporting to training camp too heavy. Last season, he failed to get a goal in his first nine games. Against Phoenix, Tkachuk had one goal and helped set up Brad Boyes for the other St. Louis goal. ... Sergei Fedorov won the preseason sweepstakes and will start the season centering the high-powered No. 1 line in Columbus between Rick Nash and David Vyborny. ... Jiri Novotny won the center job on the second line with Michael Peca centering the third line. In order to get veteran center Manny Malhotra is a more offensive situation, coach Ken Hitchcock is asking Malhotra to switch to right wing. ... For those that might not remember, the last time Hitchcock took over a team in midstream the Dallas Stars finished 15-23-5. In his first full season, the Stars were 48-26-8. Hitchcock finished last season in Columbus with a 28-29-5 record. His first full season behind the Blue Jackets bench also figures to be much better. For the record, the most wins by any of the previous six Jackets teams was 35 in 2005-06 under Gerard Gallant. ... For those who said that Nikolai Khabibulin was in better shape than ever and in a more positive frame of mind in Chicago this season, his 23-saves-on-24 shots opener seems to be proof that Khabby will be a tower of strength in goal for the Blackhawks.

The week ahead -- Paul Kariya will face off against his old Nashville Predators teammates in St. Louis with his new Blues teammates Oct. 10. Kariya was a pivotal figure as Nashville won all but one of their eight meetings last season, getting three goals and six assists plus a shootout winner on Dec. 16. ... Robert Lang and Jason Williams will have two opportunities to show their former Detroit team just how promising this season might be for their new Chicago Blackhawks team. Detroit, which won seven of eight meetings last season, is at Chicago Oct. 6 and the Hawks visit Joe Louis Arena Oct. 12. Lang, by the way, had four goals and seven assists in the eight meetings against Chicago last season. ... Detroit hosts Calgary Oct. 10 in a rematch of the first-round playoff matchup which the Red Wings won over the Flames, 4-2. ... St. Louis coach Andy Murray faces his former Kings’ team at Los Angeles Oct. 6. After replacing Mike Kitchen as Blues coach in December, Murray won all three meetings against the Kings 5-2 and 6-5 at St. Louis Dec. 21 and Jan. 12 and 3-1 in Los Angeles Jan. 18. One thing to consider here, however, is that the Kings may have some of that Murray magic on their side this time as Andy’s son, Brady, is playing on the wing in his first week in the NHL.

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