When the Chicago Blackhawks hosted the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field for the 2009 Winter Classic, they were a team in transition. Out of the playoff picture for seven years, and without a Stanley Cup for 48 years, the Hawks were revitalized after the arrivals of Jonathan Toews (drafted in 2006) and Patrick Kane (drafted in 2007) in 2007. While Chicago lost to rival Detroit in the 2009 Winter Classic, the game marked a turning point for the franchise.
“It was the first step toward putting the Blackhawks back on the map,” Toews said.
That spring, the Blackhawks made the playoffs for the first time since 2002. A year later they would win their first Stanley Cup since the Original Six era. Three years later, the Hawks captured another championship.
The Blackhawks continue to be an elite franchise, and with a 13-2-1 record since November 26, they come into the 2015 Winter Classic as a measuring stick for the Washington Capitals.
“When you play a team as good as Chicago, you play them on a national stage like this, you’re going to get their best game,” Caps forward Eric Fehr said. “So, it’s going to be a good test for us to see where we’re at against the Chicago Blackhawks top game.”
Fehr’s teammate, center Nicklas Backstrom, echoed those sentiments.
“I think right now, just, all the teams ahead of us are winning, so every game is like a playoff game,” Backstrom said. “So, I think it’s a good test for us tomorrow against Chicago. We know they’re a great hockey team and got a lot of skill guys.”
The Blackhawks welcome the challenge from other teams who view their team as a test. Toews said that being viewed as a measuring stick by other teams in the NHL is “an honor,” and noted that it is an opportunity for his team to raise their own level of play.
“We’re getting other team’s best games for the most part,” he said.
While Hawks goalie Corey Crawford said the expectation other teams have of his club “only makes us better as a team,” he noted that it’s not useful to think about the opposition’s mindset.
“We’re thinking more about our game,” he said.
Toews also said that the Blackhawks reputation and talent level is just part of the reason why they have been chosen to participate in three outdoor games.
“I think it’s reflective of the Blackhawks being a model franchise in the NHL,” he said.
“It’s going to be a tough match-up for some of our lines,” Caps forward Eric Fehr said. “Toews is also one of the best players in the league, so when there are these big-stage games, you’ve got to prepare for those guys.”
As Caps forward Brooks Laich pointed out, though, challenging match-ups make for sweeter victories.
“We’re playing a very good hockey team, a team we respect,” he said. “They’re second in the league in standings. The last game in Pittsburgh was really enjoyable because we won. We want to have the same feeling tomorrow as well.”
While Washington has not amassed the points that the Capitals have this season, they have been one of the hottest teams over the past month.
“I think that when we saw them earlier both teams were probably okay at that stage, but I think in the last month or so both teams have won a lot of key games and it seems like their games are as good as they have been at any point all year long,” Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s a dangerous game. We know that. When you play against Trotzy’s team, they play hard, they check, they don’t give up much, they play the right way. And that’s the way their team’s progressing.”
Despite their respective places in the standings, each team is taking the other very seriously. They also both have high expectations for themselves.
“They’re one of the best teams in the league obviously,” Fehr said. “They’re playing well and they’re a very skilled team. I don’t think they’re going to surprise us with anything. We expect a lot of them, but we expect a lot of ourselves as well.”