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Expectations soar for Savard, Hawks
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 7/21/2008 12:06 AM

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The convention is over, the free agents have been signed and the outdoor game is a go for Wrigley Field.

After a whirlwind summer, now all the Blackhawks have are their expectations - and they are substantial for the first time in more than a decade.

The Hawks appear to be a playoff team, but it won't be easy to get there in a seriously strong Western Conference.

Hawks coach Denis Savard will enter his second full season behind the bench under the gun to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and for only the second time in the last 10 seasons.

Adding to the pressure on Savard is the fact he is working in the final year of his contract. Some believed the Hawks might announce an extension for their coach at the convention, but apparently chairman Rocky Wirtz wants to see more results from Savard before making that commitment.

General manager Dale Tallon's contract also expires after next season.

Savard is well aware of the lofty expectations on his team and welcomes them.

"We know what we're going to be up against come September," Savard said. "The bar has been raised here, but I think with the core people we have and the leadership of our team, I see us doing well.

"Teams are going to be ready for us. There's a buzz going on here, but there's also a buzz everywhere else in the NHL. They know the Hawks are back and they know we have a good club. Once we step on the ice teams are going to come after us, no question."

Savard sees the Hawks ahead of schedule as an organization thanks to the rapid development of youngsters Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Dustin Byfuglien, and the maturing of young veterans such as Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

"To me we're two years ahead of ourselves," Savard said. "We didn't think last year we'd be where we are right now.

"But this is all good. Expectations are good. The players see what's going on. They see what we did in free agency. They see how this weekend was at the convention with the fans, so it's good mental preparation already."

It's been made clear to the players that management is going to do whatever it takes to win a Stanley Cup in the not-too-distant future.

"It's important that expectations go up and the bar is raised every year," Keith said. "We came close to making the playoffs last year, which was a big step up. Next year there's no reason why we can't make the playoffs, and everybody knows if you get to the playoffs anything can happen."

The expectations on the Hawks certainly are translating into ticket sales.

The days of playing in a half-empty United Center are over. The Hawks expect to sell out every game in 2008-09 even though all home games will be televised, thanks to a season-ticket base that could approach or even exceed 12,000.

It's going to be tough to get a Hawks ticket this year.

"It's nice to see," winger Martin Havlat said. "I've been here two years and the first time I got here they were telling me they were trying to turn things around and they're doing exactly what I was told. You can see the changes all over the place on and off the ice."