It took all 82 regular-season games, but the Chicago Blackhawks will get the opportunity to defend their Stanley Cup championship.
The Hawks lost to the Detroit Red Wings, 4-3 on Sunday afternoon but still claimed the final playoff berth, backing into the postseason thanks to the Minnesota Wild’s 5-3 victory over the Dallas Stars later in the evening.
“I’ve never been more excited in a hockey game in my life that I didn’t participate in,” a jubilant Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said on a conference call with reporters. “I was acting like a 2-year-old. Maybe a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old celebrating his birthday. It was unbelievable. I was shocked the way the whole game unfolded.”
The Hawks will take on the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs beginning Wednesday at 9 pm CST. Vancouver has home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven series as the top seed in the conference. The Hawks are the No. 8 seed.
“We know against Vancouver we have to be special, we have to be great,” Quenneville said. “I think the enthusiasm of making the playoffs after what we had to overcome throughout the year should be something we take forward. Anything can happen. All the teams are comparably even.”
The Hawks avoided becoming the fifth team since expansion in 1967 to miss the playoffs the year after winning the Stanley Cup. Their rollercoaster year began when management was forced to gut their championship roster due to salary cap constraints. Moved out were playoff heroes Dustin Byfuglien and Antti Niemi, along with eight other players.
The Hawks failed to gain traction with the new roster, never winning more than four in a row until an eight-game winning streak late in the season. That run set them up to control their own destiny in the final weeks while dealing with injuries to forwards Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland, although in the end they still needed help from the Wild to reach the playoffs. Rookie goalie Corey Crawford picked up where Niemi left off and is in the discussion for Rookie of the Year behind his 33 wins.
“Getting in was everything and now the fun begins,” Quenneville said.
Chicago split the four-game season series with the Canucks with each team winning one on the road.
The Hawks are hopeful defensive whiz Bolland is available to them for the series. Bolland is recovering from a concussion suffered on March 9.
“We’ll continue to monitor,” Quenneville said. “It’s been positive recently. It was a tough road over the last month or so, but things changed quickly. I don’t have anything more to report or prognosticate, but we hope that he’s able to be a part of the first round. Hopefully early.”
The Hawks will take Monday off to fly to Vancouver before practicing on Tuesday in advance of Game 1 Wednesday night.