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Columnist
Settle in for another long Hawks series
By Barry Rozner | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 4/29/2009 12:01 AM

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The first one was easy.

Called it Blackhawks in six, but let's not pretend it was a difficult selection, because the next one is tougher.

You had a Calgary team barely able to field a squad, riddled with injuries, facing an inexperienced Hawks team with skill players who don't like to get hit.

That was the only reason to think it would last as long as it did.

As has been the case all season, when the Hawks' best offensive players are comfortable, they're a handful for any team to handle, and you had to know a Calgary team missing so many pieces would not be able to keep up that pace.

So once the Flames stopped hitting, it stopped being a series.

That, along with a brilliant coaching job by Joel Quenneville and the goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin, won the first series.

Confidence removes fear and nerves and makes inexperience irrelevant, and Quenneville has worked tirelessly at getting his players to believe in what he tells them and in each other.

That belief equals confidence, and confidence allows a player to relax, stop thinking and respond as he has been trained to react.

It has been the same message over and over again: protect the puck, don't panic, stick with the plan, and stick up for each other.

Through the process of surviving adversity, they have learned. They believe Quenneville now, so at no time against Calgary did they think they were out of a game.

Then, once Quenneville knew he had an old, beat-up team on the ropes, he added a new dimension: score first and pile it on.

To say the club has grown since their difficult stretch in March is an understatement.

By winning a series - albeit against a team inferior to most in the postseason - the Hawks are no longer scared or young.

In a matter of weeks, they've evolved into a legitimate playoff contender, and that's mostly due to a belief in Quenneville and Khabibulin.

Funny that back in October when it said in this space that Khabibulin was the Hawks' best chance for a playoff run, based on his needing to audition for a new deal, many Hawks employees thought that conclusion laughable.

But their judgment was clouded by disgust over three stolen seasons, and you can't blame them.

However, there's nothing humorous about a goalie desperate for another winning lottery ticket, wanting to show the world he can still play.

The Hawks simply got lucky Khabibulin couldn't find even a Russian team willing to take him.

If anyone had, the Hawks would be getting their irons re-gripped today. Instead, they prepare for a Canucks team that would seem to have a Stanley Cup run in them.

They've got a great goalie, a big defense, a decent amount of offense, and they're terrific in their own building.

They have home ice for this round, and perhaps the next, if they can defeat the Hawks, and a red-hot Anaheim team knocks off Detroit.

But they also have a critical media that imposes severe pressure, and the Hawks, as the underdog, have no pressure at all.

The Canucks have been off a week, and the Hawks are on a roll.

The Canucks are going to let down a bit, happy they don't have to play Detroit, while the Hawks will be geared up.

The Canucks need to find their mojo again, and the Hawks come in a confident bunch.

That gives the West Siders a chance to steal Game 1 and home ice, turning this into a very long series.

And as in any extended series, with wins and losses causing flips and flops, cheers and tears, and ups and downs, each Hawks win will bring ring-sizing sessions and each loss will cause the planet to spin off its axis.

Such is the psychology of a short series.

Each game has the physical impact of 10 and carries the emotional equivalent of 20.

In the end it will be about quiet hands inside your own blue line and puck support after that crucial first pass.

It should be a lengthy series, filled with exasperation and desperation, with the highs and lows that only great playoff hockey can offer.

The goaltending is even, and the Canucks have a better defense. The Hawks have the offensive depth and an advantage behind the bench.

It's close enough that one injury could turn it either way.

It's a coin flip, and it's tempting to take the Hawks.

But I have it 3-3 going back to Vancouver.

And conventional wisdom compels me to call it Canucks in seven.

brozner@dailyherald.com