- Scott Burnside, NHL
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[Editor's note: Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are two NHL rookies, but they also happen to be the centerpieces of a rebuilding plan in Chicago. ESPN.com is following their progress throughout the 2007-08 season in a series called "Beginner's Puck." Our series continues during the homestretch of the regular season.]
DALLAS -- Chicago Blackhawks coach Denis Savard has constructed a chart that plots the schedules and records of all the teams in the hunt for the final playoff berths in the Western Conference.
It is a tool that is both practical and mystical, revealing not just the facts of what lies ahead for these teams in terms of home and away, when and where, but also the dream of what might be accomplished.
That the Blackhawks are among those teams is a testament to the accelerated growth of this youthful hockey team. It is also a constant reminder that no matter how far the Blackhawks have come this season, there are many miles yet to cover, that this journey isn't nearly complete.
It seems a long time ago that we sat with the two youngsters on the eve of training camp -- two highly touted prospects who were already being labeled the future of the franchise, yet unsure whether they would even be with the big club when the season began.
They were, of course, and their impact on and off the ice has been beyond the team's wildest dreams in Chicago's season of renaissance.
The pair's then-obvious differences in terms of personality, physical stature, upbringing and hockey attributes have somehow morphed into a powerful force for change for a franchise that has craved change for many years.
Late in the season, the question is whether that force will be enough to drag this team into the postseason.
The Blackhawks have played well of late, going 6-3-1 in their past 10 games. But Martin Havlat is now lost for the season with yet another shoulder injury, veterans Brent Sopel, Robert Lang and Andrei Zyuzin are also injured and Martin Lapointe is now in Ottawa. (GM Dale Tallon joked that it'll be more an issue of running out of milk and cookies than beer on the team charter.)
A recent 7-4 loss against Dallas on Feb. 28 saw the Hawks pay for their youthful inexperience, and it's easy to imagine this team simply fading away. Yet the Hawks bounced back to defeat two of the teams on Savard's chart, the Vancouver Canucks by a score of 4-1 and Minnesota Wild by a 4-2 score.
"Some nights, they're going to make mistakes. But it's not because of a lack or will or how hard they compete," Savard said. "They've come a long way, no question about it."
Since Jan. 6, Kane, the first overall pick in last June's draft, has gone through pointless streaks of four, five and three games, respectively. He has fallen into second place in the rookie scoring race behind Washington's Nicklas Backstrom, a race Kane seemed to have well in hand at the midpoint of the season. He's had food poisoning; he's had to learn about the rigors of an 82-game NHL schedule, the kind of lesson that can only be learned through experience.
"Live and learn," Tallon recently told ESPN.com. "Last night, he could have had five assists. It was maybe his best game [in a long time], but he had nothing to show for it."
Kane looks at his stats (59 points in 69 games) and his age (19), and seems to understand the significance of what he's achieved. Still, there is a hunger to do more, an understanding that there's been an evolution.
"That's not too bad. But you always want to do better," he said. "They told me I was going to hit a wall. I tried not to believe it."
Former Blackhawk and Chicago native Ed Olczyk said Kane has had to adjust his game as the season wore on, as teams took away the time and space that is so crucial to his playmaking. But he has adjusted, taking more shots, becoming less predictable.
"He's durable for a little guy," former Chicago netminder and longtime analyst Darren Pang said. "He is a difference-maker with the puck. He finds the open man better than any rookie I have seen.
"He plays hockey like he's using a lacrosse stick. He has Pavel Datsyuk hands."
As for Toews, there was a belief at the start of the season that he was the more complete and mature player, having lived away from home while playing at the University of North Dakota. And while it seemed a bit hyperbolic when Lapointe offered to hand over his captaincy to Toews at the start of training camp, it is now seen as inevitable. Toews is going to be the captain of this team.
"There is a different aura about this team when he's in the lineup," Tallon said. "He goes so hard even in the pregame skate sometimes. Savvy has to say, 'Slow down, kid!'"
The way he practices, prepares, chases down every loose puck, kills penalties, works the power play, "He is a pretty special player," Olczyk said.
It's not just his play, but how his presence affects those around him. On most nights, Toews plays against the other team's top line. He plays special teams and does so with the poise of players who have been in the league many years, which takes the pressure off other players and allows them to play with more confidence in a smaller role.
"He is the complete player. He does it all," Pang said. "He can play against top players. He is mature beyond his years and is the next captain, likely next year. He goes to the tough areas of the ice to make plays and will take a hit to make a play.
"As a 19-year-old, he played for [Steve] Yzerman's Canadian team at the World Championships. That says it all."
If not for a knee sprain that cost him 16 games from January through Feb. 9, Toews might well be running away with the Calder Trophy contest as rookie of the year. But if there was a silver lining to Toews' injury, it was that it allowed him to take a breather in the middle of a long NHL schedule.
"It was almost like a mental break from the game," Toews said.
It also afforded him a different vantage point, looking at the game and how his teammates prepared and what he wanted to accomplish. His return has come at the perfect time for a team that looks to achieve what most believed was unachievable.
Savard's playoff board appeals to Toews' sense of purpose and desire to compete.
"When he put that up on the board, it made it that much more believable," Toews said "Every shift, every period, we go out there and we're thinking about that."
Asked whether he believes he's grown into a leader this season, Toews is noncommittal. Most leaders are when asked about what it is about them that makes others follow.
"Maybe a little bit. The way I play, the way I work, I think the guys in the locker room see that," he said. "I think it's one of those things that has to happen naturally."
Tallon was in the hunt to bring in Peter Forsberg and Brad Richards before the trade deadline, searching for talented, veteran presence up front to take some of the pressure off the kids and act as a mentor into the offseason. But, in the absence of that kind of player, Tallon can't help but smile at where this team is at this stage of the season.
Meaningful games in March. It's been a long time since that phrase has applied to the Blackhawks.
"I like this because it's so healthy for our kids," Savard said. "Whether we make it or not, it's important that we take it right to the end."
What kind of dividends will it pay for this young team? Well, that kind of accounting isn't revealed for months, sometimes years. But it sure beats what fans in Chicago have become used to for most of the past decade.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.