From out to in, Hawks get chance to defend title
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Talk about the gift of a second chance.
The Blackhawks will have the opportunity to defend their Stanley Cup after all, and they have the Minnesota Wild to thank for it.
A few hours after the Hawks felt their world had collapsed around them when they lost 4-3 to Detroit at the United Center, Minnesota stunned Dallas 5-3 at the Excel Energy Center, giving coach Joel Quenneville and his team one heck of a mulligan.
"I've never been more excited after about a hockey game in my life that I didn't participate in," Quenneville said after the Wild's win. "I was acting like a 2-year-old, maybe a 3- or 4- or 5-year-old celebrating his first birthday party. It was unbelievable.
"I can't express my jubilation, enthusiasm and excitement. It's at a different level."
As the eighth seed in the Western Conference, the Hawks will play No. 1 seed Vancouver in a first-round playoff series set to start Wednesday night in Canada.
It's a series that promises to be every bit as entertaining as the last two times the Hawks and the Canucks have met in the playoffs.
The Hawks have eliminated Vancouver in the second round in each of the last two seasons, but the cast of characters has changed somewhat, at least on Chicago's end.
The Canucks have been the best team in the NHL all season, finishing with 54 wins and 117 points, but one thing they have yet to prove is they can defeat the Hawks in a seven-game series.
"We know playing Vancouver, we've got to be special. We've got to be great," Quenneville said. "We know when you play Vancouver you have to be at your best. That's our challenge. We're playing the best, and we have to be at our best."
There was a feel in the Hawks' dressing room following the loss to Detroit that the season was over.
Jonathan Toews wore a glazed look as he spoke with reporters, but as it turned out the captain and his teammates get to keep playing and try to make up for what has been a mostly disappointing regular season.
"Certainly we got lucky," Quenneville said. "Let's take advantage of getting lucky."
"I'm pretty much speechless," Toews said after the loss. "It's unreal to be here."
Fortunately for Toews, that feeling of being left out of the postseason lasted just a few hours.
"Never does it enter your mind the fact that you might not make the playoffs," Toews said. "We had some tough skids this year; we had injuries and some games where we played well and didn't come up with 2 points.
"So many things that set you back, but throughout all that you never think of this moment that this may be possible. You always think and believe you'll find a way."
It was Minnesota paving the way by rallying from a 3-2 deficit. Antti Miettinen broke a 3-3 tie with a goal at 6:47 of the third period and the Wild held on, getting an empty netter in the final minute.
"I'm pretty relieved, that's the least I can say," Patrick Sharp said. "Minnesota game to play right from the first shift and I knew we had a chance."
The players watched the game in their own homes, deciding it was best not to get together.
"We weren't exactly in the best of moods," Sharp said. "I was living and dying on every play."
Much of the talk from the Hawks after the loss to Detroit was about where the season went wrong, but that all can wait. It's time to talk about how to shut down the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler, and how to solve goalie Roberto Luongo now that wide body Dustin Byfuglien is no longer around to cause havoc in front of the net.
"We know Vancouver well and they know us well," Sharp said. "There's a lot of bad blood there, but I think at the end of the day there's a lot of respect on both sides."
Now the Hawks have a chance to shed the enormous pressure that has hovered over them all season of being the Stanley Cup champs and take a shot against a Vancouver team they have proved they can play with, skate with … and beat.
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