-- A wave of storms were supposed to rumble through the Windy City on Sunday night, but the loud sound that emanated early Sunday evening was the unified sound of relief from the Chicago Blackhawks
and their enormous fan base.
Or maybe it was just the primal screaming of Hawks coach Joel Quenneville
, after the Dallas Stars
lost 5-3 to the Minnesota Wild
and punched the playoff ticket of his defending Stanley Cup champion team.
"I've never been more excited after a hockey game in my life, that I didn't participate in," Quenneville said of his reaction after Minnesota potted an empty-net goal to seal Dallas' fate. "I was acting like a 2-year-old or maybe a 3- or 4- or 5-year-old celebrating his birthday. It was unbelievable."
Forward Patrick Sharp
's reaction was a bit more muted, according to an interview he conducted on NHL Network Sunday night. Sharp told NHL Network's Brian Duff that he watched the game by himself while sulking about Chicago's gut-wrenching 4-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings
at the United Center earlier in the day.
"I'm pretty relieved," Sharp said on the TV interview. "That's the least I can say. We weren't exactly in the best of moods after (our) game."
The Hawks had ample reason to sweat it out. Had Dallas made it into the playoffs instead of Chicago, the Hawks would've become just the fifth team in the League's history since expansion (post-1967) to not qualify for the playoffs the season after winning the Stanley Cup.
For a while on Sunday afternoon, that seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Most assumed the Stars would easily beat the Wild, a team that had won just five of their previous 18 games. Instead, while Hawks fans send out thank-you notes to the Wild, the Blackhawks themselves will prepare for their third straight postseason appearance -- thrilled to have a chance to defend their Cup championship.
"I was shocked and surprised the way the whole game unfolded," Quenneville said of the Minnesota-Dallas contest. "I didn't think it would be back-to back nights where the team that didn't look like it had much of a chance wound up getting to the dance."
Instead, the Hawks are trying on their dancing skates after officially earning the Western Conference's eighth seed with 97 points in an oft-challenging season. Their reward?
The Hawks will board a plane on Monday afternoon and fly northwest to face a familiar foe in the first round, which starts on Wednesday night against the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks
. Chicago and Vancouver have become big rivals in the past couple of seasons -- and it should only intensify with a postseason series against each other for the third straight year.
"The rivalry becomes part of the culture," Quenneville said. "Let's make sure we respect that part, but know what's at stake. Being smart, being intense, being competitive is what we'll need to be. They'll be excited to knock us off after the last two years."
Oddly enough, the Hawks will be trying to mimic the Philadelphia Flyers
from last season -- the team Chicago ultimately beat in six games in the Stanley Cup Finals to bring the Windy City its first Cup title since 1961.
The Flyers got into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season and then gritted through three tough series as underdogs to win the Eastern Conference title.
"Playing Vancouver, we've got to be special and great, but anything can happen," Quenneville said. "We saw what can happen with Philly last year. All the teams are close, all the teams are comparably even. All along, getting in was everything -- and now the fun begins."
Indeed it does. Though Vancouver streaked to the President's Trophy with an impressive 117 points, they're facing the defending Cup champions and a team that has knocked them out of the playoffs the previous two seasons.
Those defeats combined with a couple of separate on-ice squabbles has led to hard feelings between both sides -- despite almost all of the central figures in those disputes for the Hawks no longer with the team. Chicago also played Vancouver tough this season, splitting the four-game series -- including identical 1-1-0 marks at the United Center and Rogers Arena.
The Hawks do still have some injury concerns with center Dave Bolland
recovering from a concussion and Troy Brouwer
listed as day-to-day with an injured shoulder that he hurt against the Montreal Canadiens
Quenneville is hopeful Bolland and Brouwer can both return for the series against the Canucks, but isn't sure.
Meanwhile, there is also the issue of facing Vancouver's star goalie Roberto Luongo
, who's having a great season. In the past two playoff meetings against Luongo, the Hawks have fared well. The game plan, Quenneville said, likely won't change.
"He's always been a top goalie in our League for a number of reasons, (and) he reinforces his resume on a year-to-year basis," Quenneville said. "Our challenge is that we have to try to get bodies and pucks and traffic in front of him and make him work for everything he gets. Let's make sure we challenge him like we have in the past and make it tough on him to find pucks."
That worked a couple of times this season, too. The Hawks outscored Vancouver 12-9 during the season series and handed the Canucks a 7-1 shellacking on Nov. 20 at Rogers Arena.
This will be the fifth all-time meeting between Chicago and Vancouver in the playoffs, with the Hawks taking three of the previous four. The Canucks' lone postseason victory against the Hawks came in the 1982 Campbell Conference Finals. The Hawks, meanwhile, have advanced to the Western Conference Finals in each of the past two seasons and now hope to make it three.
"Ninety-seven points over the course of a year, when you're targeted, isn't such a bad year," Quenneville said. "We know we've got to be extra special against (the Canucks). That's our challenge. We're playing the best and we should be excited. We get a chance to play the best. We've been there before and we welcome our challenge of playing the best to be the best."