The Blackhawks are in third place in the Central Division. They are 10th in the NHL in points. Their leading scorer is on the shelf for 11 more weeks with a surgically repaired clavicle. And their No. 4 defenseman just played his first game all season and is about to turn 40.
Yet when Las Vegas oddsmakers released their updated Stanley Cup odds following Monday’s trade deadline, the Hawks were the consensus favorites to win it all. Bovada, for one, had the Hawks at 15-to-2, ahead of the Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators, who are far ahead of them in the standings.
Because in hockey, perhaps more than in any other sport, experience counts.
“For our team, it’s been huge to have the experience over the years,” defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “Being in series where we’ve been down — against Detroit [in 2013], we were down 3-1 — being in tough series, knowing that we have guys that are capable of winning games, and knowing you have the experience to know you’re never out till you’re done. I think you look at [the Los Angeles Kings] last year, they were down 3-0 and they were able to find a way. That’s experience. We’ve been able to find ways to win in the playoffs, and that’s a part of it.”
The Kings were down 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks in the first round last year, before rallying back to win four straight games, then two more Game 7s after that, to win their second Stanley Cup in three seasons. That experience is why the Kings, like the Hawks, get the benefit of the doubt. If the season ended today, the Kings wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. Yet Bovada has the Kings at 12-to-1 odds to repeat as champions, sixth-best in the league, tied with the New York Islanders and New York Rangers, two of the Eastern Conference’s top teams.
The newest Hawks player, Andrew Desjardins, was on that Sharks team that squandered a 3-0 lead against the Kings. And while he was understandably loath to relive the memory of that series, he acknowledged that being playoff-tested makes a difference this time of year, and all the way through June.
“I think experience obviously has something to do with it,” said Desjardins, acquired Monday in a trade for Ben Smith. “If you’ve been through it, you know what it takes. I’m sure that helps out.”
Of course, experience isn’t the only factor — you can only gain championship experience by winning a championship for the first time. But the difference between the Hawks of the past couple of seasons and the — in Patrick Kane’s words — “young and dumb” Hawks of 2009 and 2010, is a confidence and self-belief that’s based in fact, not just youthful exuberance.
“I didn’t really think too much about it back then,” Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “You kind of just felt good about yourself and the team we had back then. We just had so much fun, and we had a really young team.”
Now the Hawks are older, grizzled, and familiar with the rigors of what lies ahead in the last 18 games of the season, and the two weeks to two months beyond. They’re a flawed team, one that hasn’t won more than two games in a row since Dec. 8. One dealing with key injuries and inconsistency at both ends of the ice. One that’s pinning a lot of hope on two new guys who are still chasing their first Stanley Cup, Kimmo Timonen and Antoine Vermette.
But look around at the other contenders. The Predators haven’t been here in years, and have suddenly lost four straight. The Blues and Ducks are perennial postseason disappointments. The Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since 1993. The Canadiens haven’t won a championship since that same year. The Lightning were swept in the first round last year and missed the playoffs the previous two years.
The Hawks? Most of these guys have been through this before. They know what’s coming. They know what it takes. Vegas thinks that’s enough. The Hawks can only hope it is.
“Maybe we are favorites, but it’s not that easy,” Marian Hossa said. “[Experience] definitely helps, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.”