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Chicago's way: Still the champs

If anyone should be suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover, it should be Marian Hossa(notes). He went to the 2008 Cup final with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he lost. He went to the 2009 Cup final with the Detroit Red Wings, and he lost. Then he went to the 2010 Cup final with the Chicago Blackhawks, and finally, he won.

Having played so much hockey the past three years, he should be exhausted. Having waited so long to win it all, he should be satisfied. But here was Hossa on Monday night, double-shifting against the Wings, flying all over the ice, firing a wicked shot in overtime to lift the ’Hawks to a 3-2 victory – the most important victory of the season, according to coach Joel Quenneville.

And here was a reminder to the rest of the NHL that no matter what has happened to the ’Hawks to this point – the salary-cap purge, the slow start, the injuries, the fight to the finish – these are still the defending champions. As long as they make the playoffs, they are still dangerous.

“What a relief last year, obviously, being three years in the finals,” Hossa said. “I think I enjoyed the Cup as much as anybody else. We like the taste of it. We feel like doing it again. Right now, it’s a battle. We lost lots of players over the summer. But we’re battling and showing lots of character.”

It’s still a battle. Despite Monday night’s big victory, the Blackhawks stayed stuck in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Anaheim Ducks beat the Colorado Avalanche 5-4 to stay one point ahead.

But the Blackhawks did buy themselves a little breathing room as they headed to Boston to play the Bruins on Tuesday night. They’re three points ahead of the ninth-place Calgary Flames, who have played two more games, and four points ahead of the Dallas Stars, who have one game in hand and visit the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday night.

Seven games to go. Just win. Just get in. That’s the Blackhawks’ mantra. The odds would be against them to repeat as Cup champions, but the odds are against anyone winning four rounds in the playoffs – and at the very least they would be a frightening first-round opponent.

What if the Blackhawks finish eighth and face the league-leading Vancouver Canucks? As their reward for racking up the best record in the franchise’s 40 seasons, the Canucks could draw the team that eliminated them from the playoffs the past two years. Roberto Luongo(notes) ought to love that.

“People outside think we’re going to cruise by and into the conference final,” Canucks captain Henrik Sedin(notes) said. “But whoever we match up against in the first round, it’s going to be a battle. We’ve had trouble against different teams this year, and once you’re in the playoffs there, we’ll have a lot of pressure on us.”

It’ll only increase if it’s Chicago.

What if the Blackhawks finish seventh and face the Red Wings, currently second in the West? They lost to the Wings the night they raised their Cup banner at the United Center. Since then, they have beaten them three times in a row. They finish the season with a home-and-home series against them that could lead right into the first round.

“For us, we’ve got confidence against Vancouver,” Blackhawks winger Troy Brouwer(notes) said. “We play Detroit six times a year, so we know their style of play. We’ve had a couple real good games against them this year so far. So you get confidence, and you take that into the playoffs, and you just have that mindset where you’re going to win.”

No one picked the Blackhawks to repeat. No one has repeated in the NHL since the 1997-98 Red Wings, though the 2008-09 Wings came within a game of doing it.

Everyone knows the obstacles defending champions must overcome – a short summer, a lack of motivation, a target on your back – but no one fully understands until he goes through the experience himself.

“You go through all the playoffs, all the celebrations, all the emotions, and then all of a sudden, boom, it’s Game 1 again,” Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg(notes) said. “All the other teams are real fired up to play against you, and some nights you might not have that fire that you usually have.”

Said Wings coach Mike Babcock: “Emotionally, to get the game in September to be like it was in June, it’s not possible. It’s impossible. To get your guys to re-engage and get going, that makes it hard.”

On top of the usual issues, the Blackhawks lost 10 members of their Cup team in a salary-cap purge and key players to injuries at times this season. Some nights, they have struggled to hold leads. Other nights, they haven’t been as intense as their opponents.

The ’Hawks won eight straight from mid-February to early March. Then they went to Florida to play the Panthers, a team out of the playoff race – but a team whose general manager used to work in Chicago, a team that wanted to show something against the champs. The ’Hawks quickly fell behind 3-0 and lost 3-2.

“That Florida one really stands out,” Brouwer said. “It’s a game that we feel we should have won, and we find ourselves coming from behind by three halfway through the first period. It’s just, teams are ready to play you. Obviously maybe Dale Tallon might have had a little pep talk over there as well. But that’s how it goes. That’s how it’s been the whole season, and I assume that’s how it’s going to be the rest of the way.”

But the ’Hawks still have Hossa, who has 11 goals and 20 points in his past 16 games – and might be fresher after missing time with shoulder and knee injuries earlier this season. They still have Jonathan Toews(notes), who has 12 goals and 25 points in his past 18 games. They still have Patrick Kane(notes) and Patrick Sharp(notes) and company – or at least they will if and when Sharp returns from a knee injury.

They still have a shot. Seven games to go. Just win. Just get in.

“When we play well, we can beat any team in this league, so we’ve just got to remind ourselves of how good of a team we can be if everyone commits themselves to the way our team plays,” Toews said. “We’ve still got that firepower, I believe, and guys across our lineup can score goals. We just haven’t had any easy games this year.”