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Blackhawks, on cusp of another Cup, never get tired of winning

David Haugh
Chicago Tribune
Blackhawks the definition of winner, and that'll be difference against Lightning

Late Saturday night after the Blackhawks celebrated their Game 7 victory in a businesslike fashion, indefatigable defenseman Duncan Keith enjoyed a lighter moment at the podium.

With the Ducks' stated plan of wearing down the Hawks having failed, a reporter asked Keith how he felt considering he was looking pretty spry.

"What does spry mean?'' Keith answered as laughter ensued.

Cover Keith long enough and you need a thesaurus to describe a guy who scoffs at the idea of running out of energy. The only thing the Hawks will admit? They never tire of winning, a word their core players know how to define as well as any group in professional sports.

"We're moving on for a reason, showing a lot of character, using our speed and skill,'' said Keith, a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy. "I don't think anybody's tired this time of year. We're just excited to beat a great team like Anaheim and have the opportunity to try and beat another great team in Tampa Bay.''

Next to Keith, Jonathan Toews nodded with hockey's most trustworthy expression. The Hawks respect the Lightning because they know how hard it is to get to this point and that, in hockey, anything can happen. A game so unpredictable because of the way the puck bounces requires a predictable approach — and the Hawks control that part as well as anybody. When coach Joel Quenneville kidded he was "terrible with the motivational speeches,'' it revealed a coach who knows himself as well as a team full of leaders who make that part of his job easier.

The Hawks say the right things before games and respond the correct way during them because Quenneville conditioned them to talk and act like champions. This team was built for June, so it should surprise nobody the Hawks are peaking in time for the Stanley Cup Final.

Savor the special run this represents, Chicago. Remember how it felt being a Bulls fan in the 1990s. Recognize the rarefied air the Hawks could enter with four more victories. Yet even before a possible parade, a third Cup finals berth in six seasons confirms the Hawks boast the NHL's model franchise and the league's most envied roster, regardless of how the salary cap threatens to alter it.

In case anybody worries the Hawks will take all this for granted, consider the way Quenneville marveled at how far his team had come since losing Game 7 of the conference finals in 2014 and the motivation players derived from that along the way.

"Last year, getting that far, it's an amazing journey, a tough battle,' Quenneville said. "Then you have to get ready in training camp and think, wow, do you know how long it is to get to where we got today? It's an eternity. We commend the guys' perseverance, finding different ways, challenges.''

Quenneville's mustache curled as he smiled recalling his good fortune in taking over a young Hawks team four games into the 2008-09 season poised for greatness. Quenneville imagined having success as the Hawks developed but never like this.

"That's dreaming in color times 10,'' Quenneville said. "We got a lesson in 2009 against Detroit. … The core has been through a lot of challenges and battles. I was very fortunate to come in here with a team that was sitting on go. They keep going.''

Off the Hawks go to Tampa, Fla., the unlikeliest of hockey hotbeds. Hockey thriving in central Florida seems like beach volleyball booming in Minnesota, but the Lightning have bottled a formula their fans appreciate. It comes from general manager Steve Yzerman, who modeled his organizational plan after the great Red Wings teams he played on during the '90s — a group he might think of watching the Hawks. Yzerman, an image of what Toews might be like when he's 50, established such a stellar reputation in the game that he was rumored to have drawn the Hawks' interest in July 2009 for the general manager job Stan Bowman took.

It was a year later in the summer of 2010 when Lightning owner Jeff Vinik asked Scotty Bowman, the Hawks adviser who coached Yzerman through three Cup titles in Detroit, for a GM recommendation. Bowman named Yzerman, and Tampa Bay's draft and development process began. What an intriguing team the Hawks will face beginning Wednesday in Game 1 at Amalie Arena.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper used to be a public defender in Michigan yet this season made a convincing argument for coach of the year. Cooper came to the Lightning with no NHL experience but success at every minor-league level, a testament to Yzerman's eye for talent. In Steven Stamkos, the Lightning rely on a legitimate NHL superstar capable of dominating games and series. They have a hot goalie in Ben Bishop and Mr. Everything, center Tyler Johnson. They have what it takes to make the finals entertaining, exhilarating and, at times, excruciating for their more experienced opponent.

But overall they don't have enough to deny a team that refuses to be denied; the definition of a winner.

Hawks in six.

dhaugh@tribpub.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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