Chicago Blackhawks\' Patrick Sharp, left, celebrates his overtime goal with teammates Jonathan Toews (19) and Duncan Keith (2) during an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008, in Los Angeles. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Gus Ruelas
One of the biggest Chicago hockey crowds in recent years is expected Friday night as the red-hot Blackhawks continue to cultivate a fan base that's been eroded for a decade.
"Tomorrow night is going to be phenomenal," Hawks GM Dale Tallon told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "The fans are excited again and they should be - these kids play an entertaining game. It's fun to watch them."
With former greats Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita slated to be honoured before the game, some 22,000 fans are expected to cram into the cavernous United Center as the young-and-gun Hawks take on the mighty San Jose Sharks - winners of seven straight.
"Tomorrow night we're sold out and supposedly we're going to have the biggest crowd in a long time," said Hawks head coach Denis Savard. "It's a great feeling. The credit goes to the players, they're the ones who changed this around here."
The Hawks moved to within four points of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a 3-0 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night before 16,666 fans at a rocking United Center.
Savard couldn't wipe away a smile as the final seconds ticked away and his young squad won for the ninth time in 12 games.
"Youth brings you a lots of excitement and enthusiasm - no question about that," said Savard. "But they want it. The culture has changed here. They're really a tight bunch, they'll go to war for each other."
The Hawks have missed the playoffs four straight years and eight of the past nine seasons - a decade of decay that's eaten away at a once-proud hockey market.
But that pride is slowly returning this season as Hawks fans see the irresistible upside of a team led by rookies Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane as well as youngsters Dustin Byfuglien, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, James Wisniewski and Cam Barker, among others.
"The present is really good but the fact they're really competing hard now, it really bodes well for the future," said Tallon. "It's a special group of young kids that really cares for each other."
The Hawks were 29th in NHL attendance in 2005-06 and 2006-07 but have risen to 21st so far this season. And the best is yet to come.
"It's fun, boy," said Tallon. "These guys have a lot of character."
Despite massive injuries to key players such as star winger Martin Havlat, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and veteran defenceman Brent Sopel, the Hawks have soldiered on with their young stars and their AHL call-ups.
Tallon says 18 different call-ups from AHL Rockford have played for Chicago this season.
"It's really good to see these kids come up and play so hard for each other," he said.
The Hawks have 15 games left and realize it'll be hard to beat out Colorado, Nashville, Vancouver, Phoenix and Columbus for one of those two last playoff spots in the West.
But it's trying to do so that will pay dividends down the road.
"Whether we make it or not, those games here down the stretch are so important for young players to be part of," said Savard. "It's so important to learn what it takes - because it's playoff hockey right now. Last night, our organization hadn't been involved in a game like that in 7-8 years."
The inspired victory over the Ducks comes after a 4-2 win the night before in Minnesota and a 4-1 home win over the Canucks on Sunday.
"For our kids to respond the way they have, they're refusing to lose right now," said Savard. "They'll find every way they can to get it done.
"These guys want it bad."