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Blackhawks Tue Oct 01 2013

Blackhawks Draw Back Curtain For Opening Night

Thumbnail image for GB blackhawks icon.png It seems just like old times again, doesn't it? Regular season hockey once again is upon us, and the Stanley Cup defending champion Chicago Blackhawks open up at home against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. But just before the puck drops, a little bit of business is due.

For the fifth time in team history, and the first time since Saturday, October 9, 2010, when the Red Wings came to town to spoil matters, the Blackhawks will raise a banner to the rafters to mark excellence from the previous season. And just as the champagne finally came to dry on Lord Stanley, and Corey Crawford sobered up, in what was the shortest off season ever, coach Joel Quenneville's squad will look to do better than last time around when they came into a season with a target on their backs.

There's no doubt last season was amazing: the point streak; Corey Crawford and Ray Emery stopping everything in sight, so much so they split the Jennings Trophy; Patrick Kane's run at the Art Ross Trophy (leading scorer in the league -- no American-born player has ever won it); and the amazing, gut-wrenching run through the playoffs, capped off with a (very fast) parade and rally in Grant Park, we all took it in with pleasure. The Cup traveled everywhere from Rockit Bar and Grill to resting easy in a fishing boat with Bryan Bickell.

Then there were familiar faces being shipped off to other teams. Such was the case of Dave "The Rat" Bolland, who went back home to Toronto to play for the Leafs. Same with Michael FrolĂ­k, who was one of the top penalty-killing forwards for the Blackhawks last season, to the Winnipeg Jets -- both moves made in order to resign the emerging Bickell to a new contract.

Younger players were added to the franchise from the draft, including first-round pick Ryan Hartman, to working out other prospects like Teuvo Teravainen, of whom you'll more than likely hear more about as the season progresses.

The active roster now is set, and the rings have been distributed. All that's left is dropping the puck in hopes of another title. But who poses the greatest threat for the Blackhawks in repeating as champs, much less winning its own division and conference?

Many believe the St. Louis Blues will have a resurgent season, especially since adding center Derek Roy and winger Magnus Paajarvi, not to mention having a pretty stringent defense with leaders like Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk. Ken Hitchcock's team will roll with the familiar top line of Alex Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott between the pipes. Halak is injury prone, but could be the difference in the Blues going deeper than the second round this season.

The Los Angeles Kings also will play a major factor for the Blackhawks getting out of the West. Even though the Kings eventually fell four games to one in the Western Conference Finals, the match-up was a much closer one for the Blackhawks than that line suggests. Not to mention the Kings suffered a few lingering injuries, including Mike Richards, which limited the team's scoring chances.

The road looks a little more clear for the Blackhawks now that the Detroit Red Wings have moved over to the Eastern Conference Atlantic Division. Yeah, it sucks to see a fun foe leave the division, only to be limited to a few games per season. But rest assured Mike Babcock's crew will contend to be right there at the end, with strong chance for a Final appearance against the Blackhawks that would throw the planet off kilter. The Red Wings' exit of the Central means the division now will go as such:

Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars
Minnesota Stars
Nashville Predators
St. Louis Blues
Winnipeg Jets

So as not to get too excited about how things look here, it is safe to say that the Blackhawks and Blues will contend for the crown in the Central, while Minnesota could make some noise along the way. Points are to be had, just as long as the team doesn't look too far past its way of getting there.

Last year was a ton of fun for Blackhawks fans new and old, and this year looks to be packed with yet another great run. Baseball in this town finally is over, after a very long stretch of ineptitude. Hockey is back, and it all starts tonight (NBC SportsNet will air this first game for the national audience, and they will show the banner being raised for those who cannot make it to the UC).

Look for the Blackhawks, barring injury, to finish either first or second in the division (odds are the 24-game point streak won't be seen again), and then to make it all the way to the Conference Finals, perhaps with another rematch against the Kings. After that, it could be any one of a handful of teams from the East. Heck, even Montreal could be there at the end or even another rematch against the Bruins.

Until then, enjoy what's ahead tonight as it starts another long journey, through the cold, dark early evenings of winter into the spring. It's opening night, a banner is going up and another run is in place.

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