With big win at Wrigley, Wings show Hawks who's boss

CHICAGO -- Clinching day in baseball is an exciting time. So it was fitting that the Detroit Red Wings essentially clinched the Central Division title at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day with a 6-4 comeback victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.

OK, we know there's lots of hockey left to play this season. The Hawks and Wings play two more times. But does anyone really think the Stanley Cup-champion Red Wings will spoil an eight-point lead at this point?

No, didn't think so.

And so perhaps lost in the hoopla of a fantastic Winter Classic spectacle, the NHL's best foray outdoors to this point, is the real meaning of what transpired on the ice. Just three days ago, riding a franchise-record nine-game winning streak, the up-and-coming Blackhawks were breathing down Detroit's neck.

"Do you really think the Hawks can win the Cup?" a fan breathlessly asked us upon our arrival here Tuesday morning.

After a 4-0 whitewash at Joe Louis Arena two days ago and Thursday's win, Big Brother has spoken.

"I think they definitely sent a message a couple of nights ago, and they stepped up and played the same pace and same game today," said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, although it no doubt killed him inside to have to say those words.

"It was pretty disappointing," Hawks forward Patrick Sharp added. "I think it was a great opportunity for us as an organization to show how far we've come as players, to show everyone the strides that we've taken as a team.

"But they're the defending Stanley Cup champions for a reason."

The Cup champs haven't looked consistently great so far this season, the emotional exhaustion of the previous spring weighing on their opening three months. But when the veteran Hockeytown squad felt just a twinge of a threat from the Chi-Town youngsters, it pushed back in a dominant way.

"It was a big four points with them just right there behind us and them coming in with all that confidence," said veteran Wings center Kris Draper.

"This is definitely a week that we were geared up for," added fellow grinder Kirk Maltby. "We have to worry about these guys all year long and obviously come playoff time."

Keep these two games in mind if and when these two teams meet again come playoff time. With the hockey world watching in earnest this week, wondering just how far the Hawks had come in bridging the gap with the mighty Red Wings, Detroit outscored Chicago 10-4 over six periods and left no doubt as to who still wore the belt.

"That's why they're the best team in the world," Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said.

Like an older brother knocking his younger brother back down to the ground.

"It's true," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "But I think we're OK. We're still a confident team in here. We knew going in that these two games would be the toughest of the year for us, and they obviously were. We have respect for them. And sometimes I think we show them a little bit too much respect out on the ice, and that's probably part of the reason why we lose that momentum and we don't get it back quicker.

"But they're the defending Stanley Cup champions for a reason. At the same time, we feel we're a good team in here, and hopefully one day if we keep improving, we'll be like them."

Let's keep things in perspective here. The Blackhawks entered the season simply hoping to make the playoffs. Their recent success raised the bar of expectations and woke up an Original Six market that has been dormant for way too long. You could genuinely feel the electricity in this city this week.

That much remains a feel-good story. The Hawks are back, and so is hockey in Chicago. Kane, Toews and Keith will be around for a long time.

But what we did find out this week, especially Thursday before a national TV audience, is that the baby-faced Hawks are not quite ready for prime time. With a 3-1 lead through 20 minutes and Wrigley Field rocking, they crumbled over the final 40 minutes, allowing five unanswered goals.

"It's tough for us to sit up here and talk about how good the Wings are, but they're the best team in the league," Sharp said. "So having said that, we're not going to lay down for them. We're not going to give up. We're going to continue to try and get better."

The telling story in the next few weeks will be the way the Hawks respond. Confidence for young athletes can be a fleeting thing. The Hawks were brimming with it for most of November and December, but one wonders how crushing the Dec. 30 and Jan. 1 losses will prove to be to their collective psyche.

"If you get too high or too low, that's bound for disaster. We're a team that stays pretty even keel," said rookie Chicago forward Kris Versteeg. "We'll take a loss and we'll learn from it. That's a pretty damn good team over there, and we're a damn good team over here, too."

This is only the beginning, not the end, for the Hawks. The Wings will have to fight these young bucks off for years to come.

"They're a great bunch of players over there that are just going to continue to keep coming," Draper said. "The whole Chicago-Detroit thing is back. It's fun to be a part of."

Keith waited for a second before trying to frame what the week's disappointment meant.

"I think we're the youngest team in the league by the average age," he said. "There's a lot of room for improvement as a team in order for us to make that next step."

And that time will come.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.