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HOLY JUMPIN!: HAWKS MOVE ON AFTER 'CLASSIC'

Monday, 01.05.2009 / 3:39 PM / Holy Jumpin! - a Blog by Darren Pang
By Darren Pang
Now the season begins!

The NHL's Winter Classic was a blast. It is very difficult to compare it to being at last year’s snow-filled, majestic afternoon in Buffalo where Sidney Crosby scored in the shootout to win the game for Pittsburgh in front of 72,000 passionate fans.

This outdoor classic at Wrigley Field combined everything. It started with a village. A community. Addison, Clark and Waverly. It started out with old-time hockey bitterness, as Detroit’s Dan Cleary was hit cleanly by Brent Seabrook of the Hawks. Cleary ended up in the Hawks bench. That set the tone. The day was a great one. The Wings showed why they hold the Stanley Cup.

It was a pleasure to be there, an honor to be a part of the two outdoor games in the USA. The Blackhawks, Red Wings and the NHL could not have been more organized or looked so good.

OK, that's over with now, and the season really begins.

Coyotes TV Color Analyst Darren Pang at the NHL's  Winter Classic in Chicago.
How will the Hawks respond? They have been the talk of the NHL, along with the Bruins, and they have been preparing for the Classic all season long, only to lose the game and consecutive games against the team they emulate, the Wings.

Will they have gas in the tank to challenge for the Central Division title? Or, will this deflate them? Can they dig down deep enough for the rest of the regular season?

They sure played well in their next home game after the Classic, beating a tough team from Calgary, 5-2, on Sunday night.

They are a young and hungry organization that is lead by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but there is much more to this team than just two highly-skilled players. The Hawks have underrated Patrick Sharp to go along with speedy Martin Havlat, a potential UFA. They have a Calder candidate in Kris Versteeg as a top-six forward, and he is a good one.

They have a future Selke Award candidate in David Bolland, a former second-round pick from the London Knights that has been patient in developing an NHL game and a role that gets the trust of his coaches. He and the Coyotes Martin Hanzal will be contenders for that award for the next 10 seasons, in my opinion.

On the blue line, they have a great tandem in Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Keith does the skating and when he gets in trouble he dishes it to Seabrook, who has some good hockey sense. They complement each other very well. They signed Brian Campbell to a huge UFA deal, and he adds an element of offense, flair, and hockey sense to go along with a great deal of experience in the playoffs.

The Blackhawks locker room at Wrigley Field.
Before the season began, the question I asked Hawks General Manager Dale Tallon was a simple one: "What are you going to do with $13 million worth of goalies and who will play?"

Dale told me both Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin would play. I will never be that naive to think he really figured that in the early days of January that would be the case. Heck, they told Khabibulin to stay home during training camp at one point. They thought he may even work out a deal in Russia.

Just goes to show you, patience and timing are essential. The best goalie is Khabibulin. That is simply my opinion. He has presence in the net. He can carry a team. He has shown that, although there have been injuries and inconsistent times in the past with Khabby. He was also on a losing team in a losing environment at the time. When he signed there originally, he thought they were going to be winners. They were not even close then, but the building blocks had started. This core of players lost a lot of games together, and now they are eager to be
winners … together.

The Blackhawks locker room at Wrigley Field.
Cristobal Huet is a solid goalie. He can get on a roll, as he did last season with Washington late in the season. He can also get into funks, and sometimes takes a long time to get out of them. He is a quality person that works hard though, and they are a darn good tandem.

The Coyotes and Hawks will play in Glendale on Tuesday, Jan. 6, in a re-match of a December game in Chicago, in which the Hawks gave the Coyotes a thumping. Versteeg fought Kyle Turris in final seconds of the game and got a one-game suspension for it.

It will be an enormous game for both franchises after the Coyotes lost a four-point game in Anaheim on Sunday night in a battle for second place in the Pacific Division. They didn't compete hard enough against a team that was without Teemu Selanne, Corey Perry, Francois Beauchemin and Kent Huskins.

What team will have the most gas in the tank as the real season begins? It begins on Tuesday in the desert. I can't wait.

Panger

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