Chicago Blackhawks: 2009's Tampa Bay Rays?

Tab BamfordSenior Writer IApril 19, 2009

(I took the photo for this story with my Blackberry just after Martin Havlat scored the overtime game-winner in Game One.)


That's really the best way to describe the first two games of this new era of Chicago Blackhawks hockey. Wow.

I can proudly say that Thursday night completed the Chicago playoff tour for me; I have now seen the Bears, Bulls, Cubs, White Sox, and Blackhawks all host a playoff game.

And Thursday night blew the rest of them away. Even the 2003 Cubs' playoff game between Mark Prior and Greg Maddux at Wrigley Field doesn't hold a candle to that night.

The first game was covered with completely perfect theatrics. If new Bears quarterback Jay Cutler didn't know what he was coming to in Chicago, did he ever get a taste on Thursday. After dropping the ceremonial first puck, 22,000 semi-inebriated fans broke into an acapella "Bear Down, Chicago Bears."

From there, the action on the ice turned into what could best be described as a college bar fight between an 18-year-old freshman and a 23-year-old senior. The action was frenetic and the experience of Calgary showed compared to the deer-in-the-headlights from the young Hawks. But the Hawks were never out of it, despite looking like they hadn't warmed up for most of the first period.

As the first game progressed through the second and third periods, the rest of the league was put on notice that the talented young Blackhawks were going through hockey-puberty before our eyes.

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Enormous credit should be given to Nikolai Khabibulin, who looked as good in the net as he has in five years. The Hawks could have very easily been down two or three goals in the first game, but he single-handedly kept them around long enough for Martin Havlat to make his agent a very, very happy man (Havlat's a free agent after this season).

The crowd at Thursday night's game was as loud as any event I have attended. It took five cups of coffee and a half bag of cough drops for me to get anything out of my vocal cords at work on Friday.

Then came Saturday night. If the marketing team earned an "A" on Thursday, they got enough extra credit on Saturday to retire. They raised the bar from Cutler to Mike Ditka with the puck drop, and when the scoreboard read "Experience is overrated; Overtime goals are not" before the pregame video montage, the electricity in the stands was feverish.

But Calgary, to their credit, came out and hit, skated well, and put two goals behind Khabibulin in the first period. Despite their incredible overtime thriller on Thursday, the young Hawks again looked like a baby deer drying to determine if their knees could hold their weight.

Again, something between the first and second periods clicked. Maybe coach Joel Quenneville pulled out his best Vince Lombardi-Knute Rockne for consecutive games.

Because in the second period, the Hawks came back like Taco Bell after binge drinking—strong, without question, and making a bold statement.

This time, it wasn't the experienced Havlat carrying the team to victory, though. It was one of the so-called babies of the roster, Captain Jonathan Toews, that scratched twice in just his second career playoff game. The only sad part of Toews' night was that he won't be able to celebrate with a beer until later this week; he's still just 20 years old.

The Hawks have now overcome the biggest question pundits had regarding their playoffs run this year: having the youngest team in the league, how would they respond if they fell behind by one or two goals early? The answer was emphatic: by hitting and scoring and by shutting their opponents down.

If the rest of the league was sleeping on the Hawks as being "a year away" or "too young to make any noise," they better take a step back.

Last year, everyone took the Tampa Bay Rays for granted until their talent and young naivety carried them all the way to the World Series against an equally young team in Philadelphia. These young Blackhawks look to have established a similar swagger in the first two games.