Re-tooled Blackhawks set for quick return to Stanley Cup final

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The Stanley Cup championship won by Chicago three years ago may not be a distant memory, but who wasn’t starting to wonder if it was a one-off for the Blackhawks?

With player losses among the price paid for that success, the 2010 champs had to retool while keeping their skill level intact against grinding opponents in the NHL playoffs.

Like so many contemporary Cup winners, the defence of their title didn’t work out so well and last year’s meek ousting at the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes suggested a further decline.

Then a dominant lockout-shortened season changed it all.

Now with a 3-1 series lead over the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, putting them a win away from returning to the Cup final, how close are they to recapturing the glory?

Game 5 happens Saturday night at the United Center where a thunderous crowd of 20,000-plus will urge them towards a quick finish of the weary and wounded Kings.

Should the ‘Hawks get their seventh victory in the eight games, the streaking team that captured the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season performers will head to the final as clear favourites with home-ice advantage to boot.

"I think in these playoffs we’ve gotten better and better as we’ve gone along," ‘Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said Friday shortly after his team landed at O’Hare Airport, pleased with its split of Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles and ready to go for the kill.

"I think that’s the character of our team. We’re competitive, we want to win and we complement our team game and try hard for one another."

Like many, Quenneville points to Game 5 of the Western conference semifinal when the ‘Hawks found themselves on the ropes, trailing the Red Wings 3-1 in the series and on the brink of blowing that spectacular, if shortened, regular-season success.

"We lost a couple of tough games, but I thought that’s where we started to come (together) as a team and the progression in our team game is evolved to where there’s a little more confidence," Quenneville said.

The regression after winning the Cup was bound to happen for the ‘Hawks. Exits of key players plus the inevitable Cup hangover made the next two seasons a struggle.

A year ago, Corey Crawford was mediocre in that loss to the Coyotes and the team’s retooling process has taken some time. Crawford won’t have many shouting out his name as Canada’s obvious starter for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but he’s done more than hold his own in these playoffs.

When the shortened season began in January, the ‘Hawks came out strong and never really looked back.

Against the Kings, they have summoned that near-dominant form by being able to avoid the stifling style of play as preferred by their opponent.

The Kings may be out-hitting them game after game, but the ‘Hawks have just enough size and tenacity to withstand physical attacks while holding a clear edge in speed and skill.

Credit for that approach goes both to Quenneville and ‘Hawks general manager Stan Bowman who favours a style that’s easier on the eyes.

"Obviously our strength is our puck possession," Bowman told the team’s website this week. "We’ve got talented players that want to make plays, hold on to the puck. That’s where that label (of being a finesse team) comes in.

"People often point to how rough and tumble the Bruins are, but we’ve certainly played an intense brand of hockey here (in this series) and there’s nothing wrong with that. As a fan, you want to watch guys who can do things like that.

"But you have to be able to play a lot of ways in the playoffs to have success."

The Kings haven’t been without issues. You still have to wonder if Crawford will blow a big game for them and big-name forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have yet to make the meaningful offensive contributions you would expect from a Cup contender.

Then again, you could look at it this way: One win away from the Cup final, perhaps we haven’t yet seen the best of what they have to offer, either.