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'Hawks know it's youth vs. experience in West Finals

by Dave Lozo /
The last time the Chicago Blackhawks were in the Western Conference Finals, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were ages 6 and 7, respectively. Current Red Wing Chris Chelios played 16 games for Chicago during those 1995 playoffs, just seven fewer postseason games than Toews and Kane have played in their NHL careers.

Comparing the playoff experience between the defending Stanley Cup-champion Red Wings and Blackhawks in this year's West Finals is like comparing Mount Everest to One Tree Hill.

Don't think that's going to bother the Blackhawks' young stars one bit.

"I don't think this is anything new," said Toews, the Blackhawks' 21-year-old captain. "I think everyone knows we haven't been this far before and most of us haven't been to the playoffs before. It's a huge challenge and huge opportunity and we're excited. In a lot of ways, the pressure is on them. We're just going to have fun, stay loose. There's no reason to get overexcited or overwhelmed."

"Our situation is an experience versus youth kind of thing," Kane said. "We're looking forward to the challenge and hoping we can pull something off."

To give you an idea of Grand Canyon-sized gap in postseason experience between these two clubs, you need to look no further than each team's most experienced players -- Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom and Chicago's Samuel Pahlsson. Lidstrom has played in 225 postseason contests; Pahlsson just 78. Chelios' 260 playoff games are technically the most on either team, but he's not expected to see the ice at all against the Blackhawks.

But if the Blackhawks' youth (an average age of 25.6) hasn't hurt them so far, why should it start now?

In the first round against a Calgary Flames team that featured playoff-tested veterans Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, it was Blackhawks rookie Kris Versteeg leading the way with 2 goals and 5 assists in six games. Even 23-year-old Cam Barker chipped in with 3 goals and 3 assists.

The trend continued in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Vancouver Canucks. Kane and Toews combined for 8 goals and 4 assists in the six-game series victory, including Kane's hat trick in Game 6 in Chicago, arguably the biggest game the Blackhawks have played in nearly 15 years.

The Blackhawks have leaned on their young talent all season, and it's showing no signs of cracking during the postseason. Versteeg, 23, has 10 points in 12 games. Dave Bolland, 22, has 9 points in 12 games. Dustin Byfuglien, 24, has been a wrecking ball, with a Western Conference-leading 55 hits to go along with 7 points in 12 games.

"Buff has been a tank. He's been playing his best hockey of the season now," Kane said. "Versteeg has been great all year, and Bolland's probably one of our best two-way centers and he's been chipping in goals. All of them have been great."

There are 14 Blackhawks on the current roster who aren't old enough to rent a car in most states. Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, however, isn't one of them. The 36-year-old provides the Blackhawks with experience in the one place it matters most -- between the pipes.

Khabibulin has appeared in 69 playoff games and won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. Of course his counterpart, Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood, has 117 playoff games and three Stanley Cups on his resume, but that doesn't take away from what Khabibulin's veteran presence has meant for the youthful Blackhawks.

"He's awesome. He's a competitor and he's a confident guy in what he's able to do," Toews said of Khabibulin. "He's a heck of a player. He's been a guy we've leaned on. We're a young team that makes mistakes and had off-nights in the regular season and he's been there when we needed him and he's been the same way in the postseason here too."

Canucks/Blackhawks Playoff Gear Blackhawks Gear Red Wings gear Kane shared an amusing story about his first game against the Red Wings as a rookie last season. He tried to beat Lidstrom by chipping the puck past him and moving around him, but the six-time Norris Trophy winner smacked the puck out of mid-air to thwart the rush. Kane tried the same move later in the game with the same results.

Toews unintentionally summed up that situation when talking about the first playoff run of his career.

"You have to learn as you go," Toews said. "The pace is going to be higher. You find a way to step up your own game and find ways to contribute whether you're on the score sheet or not."

To avoid a more metaphoric smackdown from Lidstrom and the Red Wings, the Blackhawks will have to continue to be fast learners.

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