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After Cup hangover, Hawks must refocus

Go ahead. Pick against the Blackhawks. Everyone else has at this point.

There are as many stories out there now predicting the rise of other teams and the demise of the Hawks as there were when everyone chronicled the salary-cap makeover the team underwent this summer.

Of course, the two are intertwined. The Hawks' depth and size took a hit with the losses of Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd. They lost a top-six forward talent in Kris Versteeg.

Antti Niemi could potentially be a franchise goalie. Brent Sopel and John Madden were great on the penalty kill. Colin Fraser brought grit, and Adam Burish and Ben Eager brought fight. How could the Hawks possibly defend their Stanley Cup with all those players gone-

''The good thing about this team is that it's still a young team,'' said veteran winger Marian Hossa, who knows a few things about reaching the Stanley Cup finals after being there three years in a row. ''There is young hunger -- you can feel it."

That hunger is just one thing to feel positive about regarding the Hawks. Let's not forget where the franchise was five years ago. Until this current group of players proves otherwise, the Kool-Aid should still be passed out in pitchers.

Focus is crucial

The toughest test ahead of the Hawks may not be establishing chemistry with the eight new players on their current roster. It will be focusing on the daunting task at hand -- repeating. The chemistry will follow. Perhaps, it will do the Hawks some good to place their $30,000 rings in safety-deposit boxes and to send the Stanley Cup back to the Hall of Fame.

''The focus [is the hardest thing], especially at the beginning,'' Hossa said. ''You have to be mentally ready for the new start. Don't live in the past. Be prepared mentally. You have to make sure in your mind that it's a new season and not last season.''

Last season, Byfuglien, Versteeg and Niemi became household names in Chicago when the bandwagons exploded and the Hawks brought home their first Cup in 49 years. But if they were still here, 29 other teams weren't just going to hand the Cup right back to the Hawks by default.

It's said the Stanley Cup is the hardest title to win in all of sports. I believe that. There hasn't been a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings did it 1997 and 1998. There just isn't a physical and mental grind out there that can compare to the NHL playoffs.

A shared belief

With that being said, expectations should remain high for the Hawks. They should stay that way until the playoff beards of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith have shades of gray in them.

There isn't a team in the league that wouldn't take Toews, Kane, Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell as the foundation to build a team around.

''At the start of season, there has been so much talk about repeating and are we going to be good as last year,'' Keith said. ''But the way we approach it and the way we talk about it in this room is this group of players is just getting better each and every day in practice.''

Keith's answer may sound cliched. But everyone says it in the Hawks' locker room, even new guys Fernando Pisani, Jack Skille, John Scott and Jake Dowell. It's as if the messages from coach Joel Quenneville, his staff and the Hawks' brass are embedded in their minds. They believe it. After what happened last season, who can doubt them-

''There's a lot of things ahead of us that are going to be tough and hard,'' Seabrook said. ''We've got to be ready for every team that's going to be coming for us. ... There's people saying we are going to be good and people saying that we're not as good. That's our job to prove those people wrong. We're very confident in the group we have.''

A fourth-place finish in the Western Conference looks like a consensus pick for the Hawks at season's end.

And I'm sure the Hawks would take it and home-ice advantage that comes with it. But they still expect more of themselves. They still believe that when they play their game, they cannot be beat.

''It's pretty easy to make excuses: the Stanley Cup hangover or the new players that are coming in,'' Sharp said. ''But our team doesn't buy into any of that.

''We feel like we have a team that can compete [for the Stanley Cup] right from Day 1.''

Put it this way, everyone is picking the Hawks to make the playoffs. They might not have the most victories or the most points, but they didn't last season. If you're in the race, anything can happen.

''I still don't like losing,'' Keith said. ''Just because you win one time, it doesn't mean you don't like winning anymore.''