May 15, 2013 at 5:01 pm

John Niyo

Red Wings revel in underdog role against favored Blackhawks

Chicago -- Hockey players tend to give credit where credit is due, even after they've been slammed face-first into the boards or cross-checked in the back or speared in the nether regions. Or in the case of the Chicago's Patrick Kane, even after you've had your mouthguard yanked from your teeth and tossed to the ice — and maybe even spat on? — by an angry Mule, which is what happened the last time the Blackhawks and Red Wings met in the playoffs and Johan Franzen finally grew tired of Kane's yapping.

And yet, to hear Kane talk now, that's just the kind of indignity every championship wannabe must endure. Because all those years of chasing the Red Wings is what turned the Blackhawks into, well …

"That's really the team that we have kind of — I don't want to say grown to be," Kane admitted late last week, "but it's almost like they've groomed us to be the Red Wings."

Now the task is to beat the Red Wings, beginning with Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals tonight at the United Center. And that's something this Chicago team and its coach have yet to do, even as they've done just about everything else.

The Blackhawks did, in fact, win the Stanley Cup in 2010, a year after getting schooled by the Red Wings as Detroit advanced to its second straight Cup Finals. And though Chicago has been bounced in the first round of the playoffs the past two years, Joel Quenneville's team is the betting favorite to win it all this spring after starting the lockout-shortened regular season with an NHL-record 24-game unbeaten streak and then cruising to the Presidents' Trophy.

Now they're here, facing a familiar opponent. Only this time the roles are reversed.

"For a lot of years, the Wings beat up on us," said forward Patrick Sharp, who arrived in Chicago in 2005 during a 10-year span when the Blackhawks made one playoff appearance. "And it wasn't fun playing that team."

The Red Wings, meanwhile, are quietly reveling in their underdog status.

"By no means are we probably the most talented Red Wings team," said goaltender Jimmy Howard, who took over as the Red Wings starter in 2010. "But every single guy in here works hard. And in the end, that goes a long way."

Character counts

It has to for Mike Babcock's team, which scrapped just to make the playoffs last month, then outworked No. 2 seed Anaheim to win a grueling, back-and-forth series that went the distance in the first round.

"We've got good character guys in the room, and we leave everything on the ice," added defenseman Niklas Kronwall, the veteran anchor for a defense that began the Anaheim series with three playoff rookies in the lineup. "That's the only way we can have success."

Once upon a time, that wasn't necessarily the case with the Wings' roster. But that was two lockouts and several Hall of Famers ago.

Now they're the ones saying things like, "We know we can skate with them" and "Hopefully we can give them a run," even as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg continue to dazzle. And they're discovering — finally, after all these years — that it's kind of fun to be the team with few, if any, expectations this time of year, even if that means a few more giveaways in their own zone and few too many blown third-period leads.

So what to make of this series? Well, it's hard to find anyone who thinks the Wings can win it, particularly in Las Vegas.

But worries about fatigue were mitigated by the quirky second-round schedule, which gave the Wings an extra day of rest after 12,000 miles of air travel the last two weeks and gives them two days between Games 1 and 2 here in Chicago. Instead, it's the Blackhawks grumbling about a long layoff — "A lot of us here were ready to play today," Kane said Tuesday — after eliminating the Wild in five games last week.

And while the Blackhawks swept the regular-season series between these teams — "Yeah, I read that on the way in," Babcock said Monday, a bit sarcastically — three of those games went to overtime, two of them to a shootout, and as Howard noted, "This time around there's no skills competition."

Circus in town

But there is plenty of skill on Chicago's side, starting up front with a deep, talented group of forwards. Eight Blackhawks scored goals in the five-game series against the Wild, and Kane and Jonathan Toews — the team's top two scorers — weren't among them. If Anaheim's secondary scoring gave Detroit problems in the first round, Chicago's could give it fits.

But again, none of that matters now. Not the regular season. Not 2009. Not 22 consecutive playoff trips for Detroit. And not Quenneville's 0-5 playoff series record against the Wings, or the fact that all five of those Detroit teams went on to the Cup Finals.

The past is the past for these teams, division rivals since 1981 who'll be headed their separate ways after the season, with Detroit moving to the Eastern Conference. At present, all that matters is they know each other well enough to know better.

The Blackhawks have grown up — "There was an education there from them," Quenneville said — while the Red Wings have grown hungrier.

And the fans are ready to eat it up. These two Original Six teams have met 16 times in the postseason, but only three times in the last 20 years.

"The rivalry's there," Sharp said. "It's built by the fans."

But it's driven by the players. And, as Sharp added with a grin.

"I can't wait to get into the United Center tomorrow night. It's gonna be a circus."

Round and round she goes.

Henrik Zetterberg is still one of the standouts on this seasonís radically revamped Red Wings roster. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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