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First step back begins tonight

The Blackhawks' Stanley Cup title defense begins tonight in Denver. The Colorado Avalanche has the first chance to take aim at the bull's-eyes on the backs of the Hawks.

The whole season will be a challenge for the defending champions, who expect to get the best of what opponents have to offer in every game. It comes with the territory.

''We're really looking forward to the year,'' coach Joel Quenneville said Wednesday before the Hawks left for Denver. ''We are really going to be challenged in a lot of different ways, more so than what we saw last year. We welcome the challenge. We're ready. We're well prepared. The guys are focused. We have some new guys fresh in the organization [and] they're excited.''

They include goalies Marty Turco and Corey Crawford, forwards Fernando Pisani, Jack Skille, Viktor Stalberg and Jake Dowell and defensemen Nick Leddy and John Scott. They're the eight new players on the opening-night roster.

''Expectations have grown [for the Avalanche],'' said Turco, who takes over in net after the Hawks said goodbye to Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet. ''They have a good team. [Goalie Craig] Anderson had a great year last year, and no one expects him to drop at all.

''Those kids have another year of experience. They have a good group. They play hard. It's a tough place to play in when you walk into Denver. It will be a good challenge. Every night is going to be a good challenge. But it will be a good one to start the season.''

Three banners commemorating the Hawks' accomplishments last season will be raised Saturday in their home opener against the Detroit Red Wings. But the Hawks want to get off to a good start, and that begins against Colorado, which is led by young standouts in Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart.

''They had a good, young team, and they still do,'' winger Marian Hossa said. ''They have a few big guys in their lineup. We just have to make sure we start right. It's not easy to play in that building.''