The Cruelest Month: The Chicago Blackhawks' October Expectations

Dave MorrisContributor ISeptember 29, 2009

The Chicago Blackhawks open the 2009-10 season in Europe.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Quoted in the Chicago media, Coach Joel Quenneville recalled that starting overseas worked out well for the Stanley Cup Champion Penguins

“Pittsburgh at the end of the day was the champ," Quenneville said. "So I think it’s something we should be excited about and look at as a positive experience.”

The team tone accentuates the positive. After a summer where negative publicity came in waves, the focus is on a task much more difficult than last season's.

In 08-09, making the playoffs was enough. This year, talk of winning the intensely competitive Central Division and returning to the semifinals, is coupled with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.

From Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and through the line-up, players respond to questions with similar answers.

The pressure?

Part of the game, they say. When asked about his personal goals relative to the team’s, Dave Bolland replied:

“I just try to learn to do new things that will make my game better. We brought Marian Hossa, John Madden, and Tomas Kopecky in to show us what we need to know to get there. They’ve been to the Finals, and they know what it takes.”

Interviewed during the Hawks’ last exhibition match, against European Champions Zurich Lions, Madden made his philosophy clear:

“In New Jersey, we learned it’s not about individual stats. It’s all about winning games.”

As the Lions shocked the Hawks 2-1, his message had to cut deep, especially as the Victoria Cup was handed to the host, which must have evoked the Game Five Conference Final defeat against Detroit.

Brutal realitybut it sums up the Blackhawks’ agenda for October. Each player must do the small things that make their game better, for the team to succeed, and "win ugly" if necessary, rather than dazzle with talent.

On the eve of the campaign, new GM Stan Bowman took a zen-like posture.

"I feel good about the team we have," Bowman said. "We need to see what the players who are here can do.”

This is meant to be a different Blackhawks team than the emotional, roller coaster bunch under Dale Tallon. Gone is high-strung, worldly Czech Martin Havlat. Coming in are ex-Wings, the hardhat Slovak Kopecky, and his countryman Hossa, who preaches “step by step, we’re gonna go up the hill to get there,” as he works diligently to rehab his surgically repaired shoulder with a November return in mind.

The power of all this positive thinking means little, however, if the Blackhawks can’t convert it into a strong start.

Their depth is being tested early. Preseason injuries to key men like Bolland, Byfuglien and Versteeg raise new questions. Former first round pick Jack Skille is asked to fill the gap of Marian Hossa, but that’s a stretch.  The roster is beefed up with farmhands Bryan Bickell and the wonderfully-named Rob Klinkhammer; and recent waiver pickup Radek Smolenak, all six-foot-two-plus-200-plus-bruisers.

Is it enough?

The critical games include, of course, the openers in Helsinki against the Panthers. Twin victories against a less-talented but well-coached, hard-working team would confirm the Blackhawks are serious about not simply becoming an elite club, but a championship one.

Returning to North America, the immediate showdown with their eternal nemesis, the Red Wings, holds an importance that exceeds the two points to be gained or lost. The cliché “The road to the Cup runs through Detroit” and the sting of their series loss have to motivate the Hawks. Pride, though, must cede to the prioritybe as business-like and ruthless as the Red Machine from The Motor City. 

Many argue matchups on paper, while the intangibles are sometimes forgotten. Do the Blackhawks have the maturity endemic to Red Wings hockey?

That aspect, as much as their youth, depth and talent will emerge again and again as the marathon NHL season grinds on. And opponents "have the book" on this team now, so the tricks and fancy plays will be countered by staunch defenses ready to repel them.  

October is, in many ways, an acid test for the Hawks.

Three games are against divisional rival Nashville, a problem team for Chicago; witness three losses last season. They meet 2009 playoff foes Flames and Canucks, both bent on revenge. A grudge match with Martin Havlat and the Wild, and meetings with Colorado, Edmonton and Montreal, all who defeated Chicago during the previous campaign, complete a month which has no ‘gimmes’. 

Should the Hawks stutter,  the doom and gloom from fans and hockey pundits will multiply. As good as Cristobal Huet can be, the boo-birds will jump on his every miscue. Havlat Nostalgia may resound if the Hawk attack comes up short.

The Blackhawks can’t afford to let negativity take hold.

Objectively, Chicago’s considerable assets outweigh their shortcomings. But attitude matters in the mercurial sport that is hockey. Having proven they can be a top team both in goals for and goals against, the Blackhawks need to remember they don’t have to show off. As the legendary Al Davis used to say, “Just win, baby.”

If they can pull off an October surprise, the Blackhawks will have survived the cruelest month, and can get even stronger. Especially when their latest "money player" finally laces 'em up. Hossa has signed a twelve-year deal, but for the man went to the Finals twice in a row and came up short, there's no time like the present.

(Photo: Antti Niemi looks to capture the backup netminding spot in Chicago.)