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Blackhawks staying a step ahead of the pack in NHL’s salary-cap era

Not only is NHL commissioner Gary Bettman not celebrating the continued success of the Blackhawks — despite the obvious impact a championship team in the market the size of Chicago has on the league — he’s almost officially against it.

“Competitive balance is what we think is paramount,” Bettman said last week in Chicago. “The fact that seven teams are in the playoffs who weren’t in the playoffs last year … the fact that if you’re a fan of any team you have hope going into the season that your team can compete. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why having the right system was so important to us.”

By advancing to their fifth conference final in seven years and now their third Stanley Cup final in six years, the Hawks are almost mocking Bettman’s vision of NHL parity.

On the one hand, the salary cap threatens the Hawks’ magnificent run of postseason success — as soon as next season. But for now, with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in their prime and signed for the next eight seasons, challengers like the Wild, Predators and even the Ducks have to be wondering just how big the hump is they have to get over.

All three had their best chance in years to beat the Blackhawks, and all three failed for the same, daunting reason — the Blackhawks not only have premier talent with staying power, but also an ability to raise their game to meet any challenge.

Ducks goaltender Frederik Andersen was their latest victim and best illustration of what the Hawks are all about. In the first three games of the Western Conference final, Andersen looked indomitable — better than any goaltender against the Hawks in a playoff series since Mike Smith in 2012. Andersen had a .957 save percentage and a 1.27 goals-against average as the Ducks took a 2-1 series lead. When the Great Dane stymied the Great Kane in Game 1 on a scoring opportunity Patrick Kane usually capitalizes on, it looked like a sign the Hawks had met their match.

But three games later, the Hawks irrepressible will and the uncanniness of Jonathan Toews reduced Andersen to just another overwhelmed goaltender. With Toews’ two goals in the final 1:50 of regulation in Game 5 prying open the door, the Hawks scored 18 goals on Andersen in the final four games — an .844 save percentage and 4.15 goals-against average.

“They were good all over the place,” Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano said after the Hawks’ 5-3 victory in Game 7 on Saturday night. “I thought they made some good adjustments in their zone. They were cutting our cycles off. We were trying to get pucks behind the net and they were doing a good job of getting in the way and breaking out clean.”

That’s what the Hawks do. They take your best shot, react and respond. They lived up to their reputation as a team that picks up steam. After falling behind 2-1 in the series, they won three of the final four games — the only loss in overtime after Toews’ two-goal calling card. So in Games 1-3 of the playoffs under Joel Quenneville, the Hawks are 29-28; in Games 4-7 they are 40-14. Nobody in the NHL is even close to that.

“I think they showed what kind of team they are,” Cogliano said. “Their leaders — Jonny [Toews] had a great game and those guys are the key to their team. They were making plays — making plays all night, really.”

If Bettman’s vision of the NHL in the salary-cap era proves true, what the Hawks are doing could prove to be more special than we know. Even the recent contenders are struggling to keep up. The Bruins, who won the Cup in 2011 and lost to the Hawks in the Final in 2013, did not even make the playoffs this year. The Kings, who won the Cup in 2012 and 2014 and are the only team on the Hawks’ level of mental toughness and resilience, failed to make the playoffs as well. The Penguins have won four playoff series in six years since winning the Cup in 2009.

Mike Babcock bailed on the Red Wings — formerly the NHL’s gold standard but now first-round losers the past two seasons with only three playoff series victories in the past six years. The underachieving Blues had to think about it before re-hiring Ken Hitchcock, an accomplished coach. Not even Barry Trotz could keep Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals from being the Capitals. Playoff losses to the Hawks have Wild and Ducks fans wondering if Mike Yeo and Bruce Boudreau — two more pretty accomplished coaches — are the right guy for the job.

Even the Hawks’ biggest mis-step in the seven-year playoff run — losing Game 7 at home to the Kings in last year’s Western Conference final — might be more impressive than you think. Reaching the conference final after the short-summer of a Cup champion has proven to be difficult. Only the 2009 Red Wings — who reached the Cup Final after winning it all in 2008 — gone further.

When the Kings reached the conference final in 2013 — losing to the Hawks in five games — as defending champions, they had the benefit of a long offseason because of the lockout. Without that benefit after winning the Cup last year, they couldn’t even make the playoffs.

Though Quenneville disagrees, it seemed clear that the Hawks were running on fumes last year. They lost a lead 18 times in the postseason, including nine times in the conference final against the Kings. This year, a fresher team has lost the lead only seven times.

In four of the five games they’ve lost a lead, they’ve rallied to win. They never trailed in a sweep of the Wild, winning 1-0 in Game 3 on the road. When the Hawks lost 2-0 leads against the Kings last year, they lost both games. When they led 2-0 in Game 7 against the Ducks, they scored the next two goals and coasted to victory.

“Down a game a couple times in the series and we fought back,” Kane said after Game 7. “It speaks volumes about the character in this room and the leadership starting with the captain [Toews] — you get two goals right away.

“It’s pretty remarkable how he shows up in these games and seems to come through time after time. We have great leadership from Tazer to Sharpie [Patrick Sharp] to Duncs [Duncan Keith]. Duncs was unbelievable this series. And we kind of follow their lead and try to do the best we can.

In tougher circumstances, the Blackhawks are doing what the Ditka Bears could not — they are maxing out with a group of players that is special on several levels. And from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on down, they seem to know it and appreciate it. There’s still one step to go this season. There are no guarantees in Gary Bettman’s hockey world. But the way the Hawks are going, you’ve got to like their chances.