CHICAGO - By the time the Anaheim Ducks’ streak of games without a regulation loss in 2006 had reached double digits, Sean O’Donnell sensed something special building inside their dressing room.
Every championship team develops it. The sting of losing in the Western Conference finals the previous spring instilled an edge that had been absent, an unfulfilled feeling that still nagged the Ducks as they established an NHL record by beginning the following season 12-0-4.
“We felt like getting so close the year before that made it Stanley Cup or bust,” recalled O’Donnell, the recently retired former Blackhawk who was a defenseman on the 2006-07 Ducks. “We won some games we shouldn’t have won early - like the Hawks did against Calgary last week. You need some luck sometimes. We felt like that was our year.”
The Ducks proved themselves right by finishing the season even better than they started - with a Stanley Cup title. When O’Donnell compared the Ducks’ unbeaten start in ‘06 to the Blackhawks’ 10-0-2 record to open this season, the veteran of 17 NHL seasons saw one significant difference.
“Even after our streak was over we had 65 games left to play, so it was a speck of the season,” O’Donnell said. “You’re 25 percent through (this season). The way the Hawks historically play at home, it’s a huge benefit. I think this will help them more than it did us (in 2006) because a shortened season makes it harder for people to catch up.”
O’Donnell only spent last season wearing the Indianhead sweater. But that was enough time to suspect that as much as this year’s schedule favors the Hawks, last year’s calendar inspires his former teammates. Memories of 2011 won’t hurt either.
“I’m not in the room right now, but that team knows it is too talented to have two first-round exits back-to-back,” O’Donnell said. “You can blame the first one on a Stanley Cup hangover and last year on a hot goalie. Bottom line, they were both first-round exits. I always felt that team, when playing the right way, would be very, very hard to beat. And they’re showing that.”
The Hawks just spent enough time on the road to worry Pat Foley’s dry cleaner. After a 4-0-2 six-game, 12-day, 5,327-mile trip, they return Tuesday night to the United Center to play the Ducks and begin a seven-game homestand the most enthusiastic fans think could affect home ice in the Cup finals. Every game on CSN Chicago seems to generate a press release announcing a historic ratings climb. Missing the NFL never has been so easy in Chicago.
Goalie Corey Crawford, leading the league in wins with seven, summarized the trend after beating the Predators on Sunday night for the team’s first regular-season shutout in 23 months. “It seems like we just didn’t make any mistakes out there,” Crawford told reporters.
And nobody rolled their eyes.
Perhaps most significantly, people are shaking their heads at Patrick Kane for the right reasons. Kane uses his stick as a wand and makes magic with the puck, scoring goals in five straight games. Through 25 percent of the season, only Thomas Vanek of the Sabres has more goals or points than Kane (nine goals and 10 assists). The Hart Trophy looks like Kane’s to lose, making any silly notion of trading the 24-year-old star last summer seem even sillier now.
Whether it was a trip to Switzerland that kept Kane sharp during the lockout or a long, hard look in the mirror, the winger clearly came back for his sixth NHL season more committed than ever to reach his immense potential.
It also helps that the Hawks have been rolling four lines full of young, hungry players like it was 2010. That coach Joel Quenneville plugged in the power play again and penalties have been dying a slow death against Hawk penalty-killers. That the Bulls aren’t the only United Center tenant blocking shots these days. That Crawford and Ray Emery comprise the best goalie tandem in the league.
Before we get carried away planning the June parade route, civic duty compels me to remind everybody of the surprising 2007-08 Ottawa Senators. The Senators, backstopped by Emery, were the last team before the Hawks to have as many as 22 points through 12 games.
The momentum of the Senators’ 11-1 start quickly faded and they finished in seventh place in the Eastern Conference before getting swept in the first round of the playoffs - disappointment these Hawks know well.
But of the two most recent NHL teams to start so hot, the Hawks resemble the Anaheim group O’Donnell remembers for its depth and determination more than Ottawa.
And if it looks like a Duck . . .