Hoge: It’s Stanley Cup Or Bust For Blackhawks

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(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

By Adam Hoge-

UNITED CENTER (CBS) It was a familiar scene Monday morning at the United Center.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs logo had been painted onto the ice surface and the scruff of the playoff beards was starting to show up on the faces of eager Blackhawks players.

The television reporters looking for their camera shots had an important question: “Think the Kaner mullet will come back?”

“I don’t know,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “I’ve heard some rumors about it, but I don’t know if I’m at liberty to talk about it until something happens.”

Considering how the last two playoff appearances have gone for the Blackhawks, Patrick Kane might want to keep up the regular haircuts this time around.

While the sights and sounds of the playoffs are familiar for a team making its fifth straight playoff appearance, the expectations this year certainly are not.

The Blackhawks enter their first round series with the Minnesota Wild having won the second President’s Trophy in franchise history, and while some will point to an imaginary curse that doesn’t actually exist (the No. 1 overall seed has won the Cup more than any other seed since the Trophy’s inception in 1986), fans should expect this team to win its fifth Stanley Cup.

For 48 games the Blackhawks were the best team in hockey, getting off to the best start in NHL history before finishing with a league-best 77 points.

But as the curse-lovers will tell you, the results of the regular season don’t matter anymore.

That’s true. What does matter is that the Blackhawks are the deepest, most talented team in the NHL and also happen to have the best goaltending in the league. There are no guarantees that all of those traits will carry over throughout the length of the Stanley Cup Finals — especially the goaltending — but barring any major injuries, it’s fair to expect that they should.

“I think that challenging one another and expectations are all healthy,” head coach Joel Quenneville said Monday.

No one has had a better big picture mindset this season than Quenneville. As soon as the Blackhawks jumped out to the record start that they did, he immediately turned his attention to managing the roster to avoid some of the shortfalls of the last two seasons.

“I think our group is going in as fresh as we can be,” Quenneville said. “That was one of things we prioritized all season long, making sure the minutes were shared, and everybody was getting enough ice time and we gave them enough rest. Hopefully that can be something we can use to our advantage as we go along.”

Because of the shortened 48-game season, freshness will be common theme among all 16 playoff teams, but that should lead to a style of play that benefits the Blackhawks.

“I would expect a frantic pace for these playoffs,” Quenneville said. “I think the freshness of the teams has probably never been better going into a playoff series. The pace is going to be amazing.”

Pace, speed and puck possession are what this Blackhawks team thrives on. Opponents will try to slow them down by playing physical, but the Hawks have the talent to dictate the style of play by winning face-offs and converting on scoring opportunities when they come, especially on the power play.

Doubters will point to the Blackhawks’ back-to-back first-round exits the last two seasons, but neither of those teams were built like this one. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the 2011 Hawks were shorthanded after a salary cap dump and had to fight to even make the playoffs. Last year’s team was better, but still had major deficiencies, especially with Toews far from 100 percent and Hossa exiting the playoffs with a concussion. Sub-par goaltending and a non-existent power play became the story of a disappointing playoff exit, but that team was far from a true Cup contender.

“I think this year we are deeper in all areas of our team and I would have to say the growth and the motivation are definitely in the right place,” Quenneville said.

This is the culmination of a three-year Stanley Cup rebuild. The shortened season has helped and will continue to help in the playoffs, but this a team with the depth and talent to win the Cup again.

“We’ve been pretty confident all year,” goaltender Corey Crawford said. “A team that obviously has played well all year long and we just want to carry that game, that momentum into (Tuesday) night.”

Fans should expect that momentum to carry into late June. Anything short would be a disappointment.

Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHoge and read more of his columns here.

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