The tail end of this decade has been filled with winning for the Chicago Blackhawks, the beginning part was filled with hardship and a lot of losing. While the foundation was being built, the team struggled to win games leading to three coaching changes, and the birth of a new regime.
A Decade of Dominance:
Part One: The Foundation
The Dark Years
Following the lost season of 2004-05, Dale Tallon took over as the General Manager of the Chicago Blackhawks. Faced with a building a team that conforms to the new collective bargaining agreement and the rule changes making the game more fast paced, Tallon would sign goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, defenseman Adrian Aucoin, and forward Martin Lapointe. These signings raised expectations in the Windy City, leading many to wonder if this was the year the Blackhawks returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Unfortunately for coach Trent Yawney, and newly appointed Captain Aucoin, those expectations fell flat. The Blackhawks struggled to find consistency throughout the season, finishing with a 26-43-13 record. Chicago’s 65 points placed them fourth in the Central race, and 14th in the western conference.
The Blackhawks leading scorer for the year was forward Kyle Calder. Calder scored 26 goals along with 33 assists, good for 59 total points. The signing of Khabibulin made little difference that year, as the netminder finished with a 17-26-6 record along with a 3.35 goals against average and a .886 save percentage.
While the season may have been lost, the 2005-06 season saw the emergence of a few “core” members. Duncan Keith made his debut that season scoring nine goals and 12 assists. Also making his debut was Brent Seabrook, who out-performed Keith, scoring five goals and tallying 27 assists. It was during this season that the Blackhawks acquired Patrick Sharp from the Philadelphia Flyers. Sharp scored nine goals along with 14 assists in half a year with the team.
What many people don’t remember is a familiar face made also made their debut that year. A young goaltender named Corey Crawford played in two games for the Blackhawks, finishing with a 0-0-1 record along with a 3.49 GAA and .878 save percentage.
The Blackhawks played in front of an average crowd of 13,318 for the year.
The following season was one of change for the Blackhawks. After acquiring Martin Havlat from the Ottawa Senators in a trade, the team traded Calder to the Flyers for forward Michael Handzus. The Hawks also saw a coaching change at the beginning of the year, when Yawney was fired and former player Denis Savard was brought in to replace him.
Savard’s Blackhawks finished slightly better than the season before sporting a 31-42-9 record. Their 71 points only placed them fifth in the Central Division. The acquisition of Havlat turned about to be a good one, as he led the team in all statistical categories with 25 goals, 32 assists and 57 points while only playing in 56 games. Khabibulin’s numbers saw an increase as well, finishing with 25-26-5 record, 2.86 GAA, and a .902 save percentage.
Despite the team’s improved record, the average attendance for the year actually dropped to 12,727.
The Blackhawks found themselves under new ownership at the beginning of the 2007-08 season after the passing of owner William W. Wirtz. Wirtz’s son Rocky took control of the team in October 2007 and quickly changed the culture of the team.
Also coming in were a new crop of young Blackhawks, looking to bring a little energy to the team. Among those players were Jonathan Toews (2006 1st round pick), Niklas Hjalmarsson, and 2007 #1 overall pick Patrick Kane.
The Blackhawks roster looked much different heading into that season, as Aucoin was dealt to the Calgary Flames for Andrei Zyuzin. Aucoin would not be the only one dealt prior to the season, as the team also traded Jassen Cullimore (Montreal), Tony Salmelainen (Montreal), Radim Vrbata (Phoenix) and P.A. Parentau (New York Rangers). In return the team received Sergei Samsonov for Cullimore and Salmelainen, Kevyn Adams for Vrbata, and a 7th round pick for Parentau.
Also joining the team were Brent Sopel, Ryan Johansson, Jack Skille, Robert Lang, and Yanic Perrault. The team continued to make trades throughout the season. On December 18th the Blackhawks traded Jim Vandermeer to Philadelphia for Ben Eager. A month later the team sent a conditional pick to Carolina for Craig Adams, and finally on February 26th the Hawks traded Lapointe to Ottawa for a 6th round pick, and Tuomo Ruutu to Carolina for Andrew Laad.
Backed by a strong season from Kane (72 points) and Sharp (35 goals) Chicago finished with a 40-34-8 record. The Blackhawks 88 points were good enough for third in the central, but they found themselves three points shy of the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference.
For the fifth consecutive season the Blackhawks missed the playoffs. That season marked the last time this decade they failed to reach the playoffs.
The Blackhawks saw a rise in attendance that year (16,814), as Chicago fans realized that something special was brewing in the Windy City.
Close But No Cigar
Building off of their strong 2007-08 season, the Blackhawks made a few changes to the way the team was broadcast. Chicago announced they were be leaving WSCR 670 in favor of WGN 720 for all of their radio broadcasts. The team also let be known that 20 select games would air on WGN television as well.
There were three other big announcements made that season. Broadcaster Pat Foley was brought back by the team, after having a falling out in 2006. In addition, the NHL announced that the Blackhawks would take on the Detroit Red Wings in the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Lastly, Chicago named Jonathan Toews team captain.
Savard was the first causality to fall under the heavy expectations. After a slow start that saw Chicago lose three of the first four games, Savard was fired and recently hired pro scout Joel Quenneville took his spot on the bench.
What happened next was the true start of the Blackhawks Decade of Dominance.
Chicago set a franchise record when they won nine straight games in the month of December, finishing the month with a 10-1-1 record. The Blackhawks fell to the Red Wings in the Winter Classic 6-4, but the young Hawks showed they were a team on the rise putting the Wings in an early 3-1 hole.
The Blackhawks continued their strong season, using a 7-0-1 record in the month of April to catapult them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After a six year absence, Chicago finally returned.
In Game 1 of the first round, Havlat gave Blackhawks fans hope that their stay would not be short when he scored the game-winning goal in the first overtime against Calgary. After winning Game 2 by a score of 3-2, emotions were high in the Windy City. But Blackhawks fans were quickly brought back to earth when their team dropped the next two games. With playoff hopes on the line, the young ‘Hawks found a way to win Game 5 and 6 to move on to the Conference Semi-Finals for the first time since 1996.
Chicago faced the Vancouver Canucks in the 2nd round and found themselves in a 2-1 series hole. What happened next would become the calling card of the Blackhawks going forward. Down 2-1 in the series, Chicago went on to win the next 3 games, dispatching Vancouver and advancing to the Conference Finals. A place they have not been since 1995.
The ‘Hawks faced a familiar foe in the Conference Finals, the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit attempted to make quick work of the Blackhawks, winning Game 1 and 2.
But Chicago would not go without a fight, putting Detroit down 3-0 in Game 3. Just like in the Winter Classic, Detroit clawed back into the game. However, this time Chicago prevailed on the strength of Sharp’s game winner in overtime.
Unfortunately for Chicago that would be it. Detroit thumped the Hawks 6-1 in Game 4, and Darren Helm crushed the Hawk faithful when he scored the game-winner in overtime of Game 5.
The Blackhawks quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup would have to wait at least one more year.
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Matthew Bowen has been covering the Chicago Blackhawks for 5+ years. He has covered the team for websites such as ChiCitySports, Bleacher Report and Blackhawksondemand.