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Stakes are high for Blackhawks, Sharks
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Staff

Sharks center Scott Nichol celebrates after scoring against the Colorado Avalanche in their first-round series. Has San Jose cleared a crucial mental hurdle by reaching the conference finals?

 

Associated Press

The Blackhawks have come to depend players such as Andrew Ladd - but salary cap issues may limit team depth next season, and the Hawks plan to seize the opportunity before them.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 5/15/2010 7:49 PM

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SAN JOSE, Calif. - For this group of the Blackhawks, the time is now.

And they know it - even if most of them don't want to talk about what might happen this off-season when serious salary cap problems will no doubt lead to change.

The Hawks are back in the Western Conference finals for the second year in a row with a great chance to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. It's an opportunity that may or may not be there in the future when the depth of the team likely won't be what it is right now.

"It's tough to look ahead and realize what might happen with the team, but we've talked a lot in this room about seizing the opportunity," Hawks center Patrick Shark said Saturday ahead the start of the West finals today against the San Jose Sharks.

"You see guys play 15 or 20 years in the league and never have the opportunity we've had twice in the last two years," Sharp said. "Whenever you have an opportunity like this you've got to leave everything out there."

There is just as much at stake for the Sharks as an organization to erase years of playoff flops following great regular seasons

Prior to this spring the Sharks had bowed out of the playoffs in the first or second round four straight times despite finished the regular season with 99 points or better.

"Ever since I've been here it's Cup or bust," San Jose center Joe Thornton said. "We realize the expectations out here are probably higher than any city in the Western Conference. We set our sights high and we're finally at that point where we're feeling confident with our team."

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson and coach Todd McLellan didn't panic and blow the team up after last spring's playoff failure that followed a 117-point regular season. Wilson even went out and added to the core by trading for all-star winger Dany Heatley.

By reaching the conference finals the Sharks may have cleared a huge mental hurdle.

"I hope we've crossed that line already," McLellan said. "Heading into the playoffs we were probably haunted more and then turned it into motivation and now hopefully we're motivated more by it.

"It's an interesting dynamic because you've got a collective group that wants to do well and prove everybody wrong, then within it you can tell there are some individuals who have stories to tell and ghosts to slay, or whatever words you want to use."

This is re-do for the Hawks, so to speak, a second chance to play for the Stanley Cup after falling short a year ago against Detroit in the West finals.

"Last year it was almost like we weren't supposed to be in that situation," Patrick Kane said. "We found a way to get there then played an experienced team like Detroit that took it to us that series. It taught us a lot about our team and how far experience goes this time of year."

Added Jonathan Toews: "This year we're much more mature and much more solid in the way we play and the way we win games. We understand what it going to take to win this time of year. It's up to us to find a way to use that experience and remember how it feels to lose."

The Hawks entered the season with great expectations and so far have met them, although some might perceive the year as a failure if they don't reach the Finals.

"This year coming in everyone expected us not only to get back to this point, but to get beyond it," Toews said. "We've been through the pressure and expectations and we've battled all that type of adversity to get where we are now. We have this opportunity and we're here to take advantage of it and nothing else."

Hawks coach Joel Quenneville has seen his team play its best in the biggest games and expects the trend to continue.

"It's not easy to get here," Quenneville said. "Getting back to where we got to last year is where we wanted to be, but getting to the next round is what we're all about."