Commentary

Learning the hard way

Originally Published: May 24, 2009
By Wayne Drehs | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Brent Seabrook tried. He really, really tried. But no matter how hard he thought, no matter how long he waited before speaking, the only answer was the truth.

What positives could the baby Blackhawks draw from Sunday's deflating 6-1 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, a setback that put Chicago in a 3-1 hole in the series?

"I can't think of any," the defenseman said, his hair still soaked in sweat. "We pretty much need to play the exact opposite of the way we played today if we're going to have any success."

That's how ugly things were for Chicago at the United Center on Sunday. The Wings played without their two best players, Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk, and yet they embarrassed the Hawks on their home ice. Chicago had 11 giveaways, 16 penalties and surrendered a short-handed goal. It was so ugly that the Red Wings played backup goaltender Ty Conklin for half of the third period, just because they could.

But maybe there was something to be learned; maybe it was another lesson, another step in the maturation process for the youngest team in hockey. Michael Jordan's Bulls had many embarrassing losses to the Pistons before they finally broke through. And even the Red Wings themselves were kicked to the curb by San Jose, New Jersey and Colorado before breaking through and winning the Cup in 1997.

Let's be honest -- no one expected this from the Blackhawks back in October. Chicago's "One Goal," was to make the playoffs and then perhaps win a series. Instead, they've won two and advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time in more than a decade.

But here against the NHL's premier franchise, life hasn't been easy. Every game has brought with it another lesson. In Detroit, the Hawks learned what happens when you make mistakes, when you carelessly turn the puck over in the neutral zone. Friday night they learned that you can't lose your edge, you can't slow down for even an instant, or a 3-0 lead can be a 3-3 tie in less than five minutes.

And Sunday, they suffered their first clunker of the postseason, learning firsthand what happens when you commit 56 minutes' worth of penalties against one of the most potent offenses in the league.

"It's not fun losing at home and it's not fun losing like that," Patrick Sharp said. "But we still have one more game left. And we're not giving up yet."

Of course they aren't. And in these Stanley Cup playoffs, one team has already erased a 3-1 deficit and gone on to win a series: the Washington Capitals. But the Red Wings aren't the New York Rangers. And the Blackhawks, for all of their young talent, don't have anyone like Alex Ovechkin.

Common sense says this one is over. Hence the 15,000 fans or so who stuck around after the final horn Sunday to show their appreciation for the memorable 2008-09 season. They know there is a good chance this is the last hockey that will be played at the United Center until next season.

And if indeed that is the case, if indeed Sunday marked the beginning of the end, my how life will be different the next time Jim Cornelison belts the national anthem. Youth and inexperience will no longer be an excuse. Innocence and ignorance will be shoved aside and in place of expectations and pressure.

Just ask Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich or Luol Deng what life was like for the Bulls after they broke through in 2006. Or ask Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood or Aramis Ramirez about the Cubs' 2004 season.

"I believe a team has to get a sense for that bitter taste of defeat before they can truly be great," Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said during Sunday's third period. "When you look at what this team has experienced, even in a game like tonight, it can only help us."

But with expectations will come scrutiny and questions. With Nikolai Khabibulin a free agent and $26 million man Cristobal Huet struggling, who will be between the pipes? What will they do with Martin Havlat, who is also a free agent at the end of the season? There will be an entire offseason to answer these questions. But in the meantime, it's important to stop for a quick second and appreciate how fun all this has been, how remarkable this hockey renaissance in Chicago truly has been.

Next year, fans won't accept a short-handed goal. They'll be furious if an opponent scores unassisted with 21 seconds left in a period. And they will certainly be beside themselves if the Hawks score an early second-period goal to cut a three-goal lead to two, only to watch the opposition delete that momentum with a goal of its own 12 seconds later.

On Sunday, the only thing that numbed that pain, the only thing that placated the fans and made the Game 4 disaster forgettable, was the understanding that this is the youngest team in hockey and, in theory, the future is blindingly bright.

But after this series comes to an end, whenever that might be, it will never be the same.

"The days of us sneaking under the radar and surprising people are long gone," Wirtz said. "Sure there are going to be expectations. Sure there is going to be pressure. Sure the fans are going to expect more. And rightfully so. I don't think anyone in this organization is scared of that.

"Sometimes, before you can be great, you have to experience the bitterness of losing. You have to go through that hurt. And I think a series like this and a game like tonight, this is only going to help us."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@Espn3.com. Follow Wayne on Twitter @ESPNWayneDrehs.

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