Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford blocks a shot by defensemen Brent Seabrook during NHL hockey practice Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Chicago. The Blackhawks begin the lockout-shortened 48-game regular season against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
CHICAGO - Just a few years ago, Patrick Kane was flicking the puck into the far side of the net from the most improbable of angles in overtime to give the Chicago Blackhawks the Stanley Cup championship.
Since then, they haven't escaped the first round.
One and done in the playoffs the past two seasons after beating Philadelphia for the championship, the Blackhawks believe they can make a big run in a season where there's little room for error.
"Last year, we had too many ups and downs," Kane said.
There was a big lull in the middle of the season when the Blackhawks dropped nine in a row. They regrouped to finish fourth in the Central Division with the fifth-most points in the Western Conference (101), but the margin for error this time is as thin as a skate blade. The lockout reduced the season to 48 games and the condensed scheduled means the stakes are higher each time they hit the ice, staring with Saturday's opener at Los Angeles.
"A 48-game season, you go through those lulls, you could be out of a playoff spot," Kane said. "You've got to count on everybody in the lineup. You've got to have good depth. Special teams have to be good."
The Blackhawks still have the same cast of stars from that championship run, with captain Jonathan Toews, Kane and Marian Hossa, but salary-cap issues forced management to part with key pieces of the supporting cast. And they haven't quite found that same sort of mix.
A big issue last season was their special teams.
The power play, led by Toews, Kane and Patrick Sharp, scored 42 times in 82 games, connecting on 15.2 per cent of chances, and ranked 26th in the 30-team NHL. Things were so bad that coach Joel Quenneville switched power play duties from assistant Mike Haviland to Mike Kitchen during the season and ultimately fired Haviland.
It was a sharp decline in an area that had been a strength for the Blackhawks in previous seasons, when they had Dustin Byfuglien and Troy Brouwer setting up in front of the net.
Now, it looks like Viktor Stalberg is getting the first crack at that role with Andrew Shaw also in the mix.
"He's dangerous when he has it," Quenneville said. "He's a threat to score off the rush, but I think he opens up space for linemates as well."
Stalberg kept hoping he'd get that chance in front on the power play last season. But it never came, even though he scored 22 goals.
"Last year, it seemed like no one really took it upon themselves to get that spot," Stalberg said. "I don't know if there was enough consistency with one guy being there, either. It was just kind of new guys all the time trying it out. Hopefully, this year I can get a good start and get some momentum on the power play. That's going to be big for us."
As bad as they were on the power play last season, their penalty killing was worse. The Blackhawks ranked 27th and opponents scored on 21.9 per cent of their chances.
Another question mark is in the net.
No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford allowed two soft goals in overtime that cost the Blackhawks in the playoffs, and he didn't post a shutout in 57 appearances last season. His goals-against average of 2.72 was more than a goal worse than league leader Brian Elliott of St. Louis.
The Blackhawks want more from him. They want more, period.
"We want more of a team identity, that we're a tough team to play against, a hard working team that does the little things," goalie Ray Emery said. "It's a new season. It's a good thing. We get to wipe the slate clean. We know that we have tons of talent. We've got role players and depth. It's exciting to correct some mistakes and move forward."