Chicago Blackhawks' new journey opens with 5-1 loss

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) sends Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy (5) into the dasher with a check during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Tampa, Fla.

    Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) sends Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy (5) into the dasher with a check during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Tampa, Fla.

 
 
Updated 1/13/2021 9:58 PM

Every long journey -- no matter where someone is headed -- begins with a single step.

Then another.

 

And eventually -- assuming they don't get lost, bruised or battered along the way -- their destination is reached and some sort of celebration is likely in order.

It's with those thoughts in mind that we bring you to the scene at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, where the Blackhawks and Lightning clashed night to begin the 2021 NHL season.

The visitors arrived six years removed from their last Stanley Cup championship, which came incredibly enough against coach Jon Cooper's team in 2015. After years of steady decline, the Hawks are officially rebuilding, with that first baby step coming Wednesday night.

The home team realized its championship dream last September by defeating Dallas in the Stanley Cup Final and held a pregame ceremony to celebrate its successful quest before trouncing the Hawks 5-1.

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Could there have been a better place for coach Jeremy Colliton's squad to kick off this campaign? All Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik, Connor Murphy, Ian Mitchell, Adam Boqvist and a host of other Hawks had to do was look across the ice and think, "Someday that'll be us."

"Take a mental note," Strome said. "That's where we want to be."

Said Colliton: "It should have everyone's attention that we're playing the Stanley Cup champions. It is their night to celebrate and it'll be a little bit different. ...

"But we've got to be ready. It's a very good team over there. We've got to embrace that from puck drop. Be aggressive, be assertive and rise to the challenge."

That definitely didn't happen in the opener as Tampa Bay raced to a 3-0 first-period lead and extended it to 4-0 after two. The Hawks had precious few scoring opportunities, with the best coming from Patrick Kane, Lucas Wallmark, Andrew Shaw and Kubalik. Shaw was truly robbed by Andrei Vasilevskiy when the Lightning's goalie barely got his left pad on an in-tight shot with less than 20 seconds remaining in the second period.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Goaltender Malcolm Subban struggled mightily in his first start for the Hawks, allowing 4 goals on the Lightning's first 20 shots.

From a win-loss standpoint, not much is expected from the Hawks during this 56-game season.

What is expected is growth. And lots of it as coaches expect to see:

• Boqvist and Mitchell develop into reliable D-men who don't back down against the world's best players.

• The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Nikita Zadorov become a consistent force.

• Other blue liners such as Nicolas Beaudin, Lucas Carlsson and Wyatt Kalynuk take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

• European import Pius Suter emerge as a top scoring threat.

• Philipp Kurashev crack the lineup and prove he belongs.

But that's not all. The Hawks also must see established players take their game to another level.

DeBrincat needs to rediscover his scoring touch. Strome must show he's a reliable top-six center. Kubalik can't have a sophomore slump. Even Andrew Shaw has plenty to prove.

As for the goalies? Good question.

I believe Kevin Lankinen may be the only one who has true staying power, but we'll find out for sure in the coming weeks and months.

So there you have it. The journey is under way.

Stan Bowman, Colliton and the entire coaching staff must choose the path that begins a slow, steady ascent. Do that and the mountain top can be reached again.

But choose the wrong road -- one full of players who don't reach their potential and don't have what it takes -- and it likely leads to the end of this regime.

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