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Blackhawks cheered like heroes, not the erratic squad from last season


Patrick Kane greets fans during player introductions Saturday red carpet Blackhawks’ home opener. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Patrick Kane greets the fans during player introductions Saturday on the red carpet at the Blackhawks’ home opener. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 11:29AM



When the Blackhawks pulled up in stretch limos for their home opener Saturday night, a horde of cheering fans was waiting to greet them outside the United Center.

It was a heroes’ welcome for a team that backed into the Western Conference playoffs last season.

There are stronger drugs than unbridled optimism, but none of them are legal.

From the talk around town leading up to the start of the season, you would have thought the Hawks were coming off their second consecutive Stanley Cup title. People are being selective in their memory, and you can’t blame them. Would you rather ponder how frustrating the Hawks were for the entire 2010-11 regular season or how close they came to beating Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs?

Of course you’re going to dwell on the fact that they took the Canucks to seven games — the same Canucks who made it to the Stanley Cup finals before losing and watching rioters trash their city.

It’s funny how the narrative of a season can go from utter ­disappointment to the conviction that the Hawks were this/close to being great again.

Keith has to be better

That brings us to Saturday night at the UC, which had the decibel level of a roaring waterfall during introductions and the national anthem. It was loud for a reason: The crowd thought there was no earthly reason why its beloved team shouldn’t be hoisting the trophy again at the end of the season.

And after watching the Hawks take apart the Stars with a toughness that was missing last season, you couldn’t help but think: I might have been wrong about these people. They might be getting enough oxygen to their brains. The Hawks won 5-2 and looked ­dominant doing it.

There still is the teeny, tiny matter of team chemistry. If you recall, the question going into last season was how the Hawks were going to deal with their roster upheaval. Not well, as it turned out. Ten players from the Stanley Cup team were gone, most because of salary cap constraints. The Hawks proceeded to sneak into the playoffs.

The question is back for a return engagement. Seven players made their Hawks debut Friday night in Dallas. Given how last season went, that’s not such a bad thing. But how will the new talent mix with the core of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp? It’s the same core that couldn’t quite find itself last season.

One of hockey’s self-evident truths is that you never know. You thought the Hawks were going to build off their Stanley Cup season in 2010-11. You and everybody else thought wrong.

We know the reasons the Hawks should be better this time around.

Keith can’t possibly play as poorly as he did last season, though he didn’t look sharp Friday night.

New Hawks tough guys Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo are supposed to fill the void left by Dustin Byfuglien, who was traded after the Cup season. Mayers made his presence immediately known Saturday when he squared off against the Stars’ Jake Dowell in the first ­period. Carcillo was suspended for Friday’s and Saturday’s games because of an incident with officials in the playoffs last season. He said you can expect him to be in “the principal’s office’’ now and then. That’s a good thing for a team that had too many teacher’s pets last year.

New ‘toughness’

And it was a very good sign that human irritant Dave Bolland scored to give the Hawks a 2-0 lead in the second period Saturday, then got into the briefest of scuffles immediately afterward. That’s him in a nutshell. He scored an empty netter for good measure.

“There is a toughness’’ to the team, Bolland said. “You can see that we’ve got a lot of tough guys with [Mayers], John Scott. I think we can play any kind of game out there, whichever a team wants to play.’’

The Hawks want to get off to a fast start this season, unlike last year. They want to play well at home, something they didn’t do last season.

Come to think of it, they’d like to forget last season.

“We lost some valuable points that put us in a tough spot all year long,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. “We want to make sure that we emphasize the importance of the home ice, take advantage of the building, the crowd, the noise.’’

They did that Saturday. What does it mean? A Stanley Cup appearance? No, it means they’re 1-1. But it’s a start.



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