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Favored Blackhawks ready to begin another Stanley Cup run

Updated: November 2, 2013 6:14AM



Patrick Kane is 24 years old. Only 24.

Stop for a moment and consider that. A veteran entering his seventh season with his name hammered into the side of the Stanley Cup twice, he’s pretty much just a kid. Just getting started.

It was back in 2007 that Kane arrived in Chicago as a wide-eyed 18-year-old, the top pick in the draft, the weight of a moribund franchise and a half-empty arena on his and fellow teen Jonathan Toews’ shoulders. And when that duo — with a bunch of other precocious 20-somethings — brought the Blackhawks their first championship in nearly a half-century three years later, the nights were long and the fun was as limitless as the potential. Kids being kids.

It’s a little different now, the second time around. Now, the kids are having kids.

‘‘It’s crazy how time flies,’’ Kane said. ‘‘From 2010 to 2013, three years makes a big difference. Guys getting married and having babies [from] guys being single and not having girlfriends. It’s pretty amazing what can change in that short amount of time.’’

Indeed, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook became fathers this year. Bryan Bickell got married. Corey Crawford got engaged. And there are more Hawklings on the way.

‘‘It’s kind of weird,’’ Keith said of hanging with Seabrook, his longtime buddy and defensive partner. ‘‘Conversations go from hockey to changing diapers. Everybody’s getting older now.’’

But there’s the rub. The Hawks are getting older, but they are startlingly far from old. Kane is 24. Toews is 25. Niklas Hjalmarsson is 26. Seabrook is 28. Keith turned 30 during the summer. Patrick Sharp is a spry 31. They’re still young and hungry, but they’re experienced and accomplished. They have youthful vigor and veteran perspective. They’ve done so much together, but they have so much left to do.

In short, they’re prepared to handle the incredible — and perhaps unreasonable — amount of hype and expectations that are being heaped upon them.

There’s no harder trophy to win in sports than the Stanley Cup, yet the Hawks are being tapped by many to waltz to their third title in five seasons, to become the first team to repeat since the 1997-98 Red Wings, to build a bona fide dynasty during the next several seasons the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the NHL since the 1980s.

The Hawks, who feel like they’ve seen it all, just shrug it off.

‘‘I think we have guys in here that won’t be affected by all that,’’ Sharp said. ‘‘It’s not just winning it the first time and learning from the 2010-11 season. You’ve got a number of guys in here who have played in huge games, whether it was junior hockey, college hockey, the Olympics, international hockey and a couple of Stanley Cup finals. I like the makeup of our team. We’re a young team, but we’ve been through a lot already in our careers.’’

They’ll need that veteran poise to handle a season full of big stages — the banner-raising opener Tuesday against the Capitals, a dozen national-TV games, a game against the Penguins on March 1 at Soldier Field and another potentially grueling slog through the playoffs — as well as the difficulty that comes with facing every team’s
‘‘A’’ game and ‘‘A’’ goalie.

The Hawks got a taste of that when their record 24-game season-opening point streak was reaching into the high teens last season. This season, it’ll be like that every game. There will be no easy nights.

‘‘Obviously, [after] winning a Stanley Cup, people want to prove themselves against you, so there’s always that element of getting teams’ best performances,’’ Toews said. ‘‘At the same time, we’ve got to have that mentality where we’re starting from the ground up, starting over. We want to be a team that’s really hungrier than anyone else and plays the role of the aggressor every single night.’’

They also will need that youth to handle what might be an unprecedented grind of a season. They’re coming off a 79-day offseason (the shortest in modern history) that will be followed by a full 82-game season that’s nearly as compressed as the post-lockout schedule, thanks to a three-week interruption for the Olympics in Sochi, Russia — a tournament that will feature more than half the roster traveling to the other side of the world to play even more high-intensity games.

‘‘I don’t know if it’ll really hit us until about Christmastime,’’ Seabrook said. ‘‘It might turn into a little bit of a grind, but every team’s going to go through that. We had the luxury of playing [23] more playoff games, so I think we’re prepared for the long haul.’’

Coach Joel Quenneville is older and wiser, too. He learned last season how to keep his team fresh through a compressed season, offering more days off and putting more responsibility on his fourth line to ease the burden on his top guys. And he learned from the disappointing 2010-11 title defense just how crucial a hot start is. The Hawks, after losing half their roster that offseason, were a mere 11-11-2 in late November and barely scratched their way into the playoffs as the eighth seed, losing to the Canucks in the first round.

Quenneville also knows he can lean on a core group that’s wise beyond its years, one that has managed not to let the two Cups, the four Sports Illustrated covers, the massive Grant Park celebration, the viral YouTube videos and the endless hype get to their heads.

‘‘You look at their demeanor, their character, their approach — they’re always in the right place,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘Very professional, putting things in perspective and welcoming the next challenge. . . . They’ve played in a lot of big games, and I don’t think it changes their approach one bit. I think they just welcome the next challenge.’’

Whether that challenge is fatherhood, marriage or the playoffs, with just the right mix of energy and experience, swagger and savvy, these Hawks appear to be built for the long haul.

‘‘It’s interesting the way things have changed over the years here,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘We had a bunch of young guys, and they’re all buddies and they’re young and they’re having a good time. And now they’re young dads. It’s kind of been a fun couple of years here. I can only see it being more fun when the Blackhawks family’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger.’’

Along with — assuming things go according to plans and expectations — the trophy case.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkLazerus



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