For Fire, 2012 a "year for no excuses"

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For Fire, 2012 a "year for no excuses"

The Fire had never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons at this time a year ago. But with a team featuring plenty of new faces and an early-season coaching change, the Men in Red missed the playoffs for the second straight year, falling just short of the postseason despite a torrid finish.

No player or coach would've used that lack of familiarity as an excuse for falling short of their goals. But it does serve as a fair explanation, especially in light of their 7-2-1 record over the final 10 games of the season. Under Frank Klopas, the team came together but ultimately was done in by the poor start that saw the team notch just two victories through mid-August.

If that momentum from last year's playoff push carries over, though, that playoff drought will be history.

"It's a lot more comfortable for the guys as opposed to last year," winger Patrick Nyarko said. "It helped because we didn't have to start from scratch, so it made it a lot easier."

Defender Cory Gibbs took it a step further.

"This is the year for no excuses," he said. "This is what we've asked for, the cohesiveness. We've kept everybody with the addition of two or three solid players. If we don't get it done this year, there's no reason for it, no excuses.

"We have all the elements in place, we just have to put it together."

Good vibrations are running rampant around Fire training heading into the club's home opener against Philadelphia on Saturday, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet. Chicago came away from a rabid environment in Montreal last weekend with a point, drawing the Impact in the franchise's first-ever home match.

The Fire earned a draw thanks to an equalizing goal by Dominic Oduro, which was brilliantly set up by midfielder Sebastian Grazzini. The score was indicative of how far the Fire have come in the last year -- Oduro was acquired from Houston in an early-season trade last year while Grazzini joined the club in July. Months later, the pair's rapport paid off in the form of a key goal.

"That's a typical example of what happens when you play over time," said Gibbs. "That probably wouldn't have happened with them being together for just this season."

Of course, whatever success may be ahead for the Fire won't come just because the roster is more familiar with each other. Klopas would bristle at that suggestion.

"Everyone's gotta pay the price, the price has to be paid every frickin' day we come here to training," Klopas said emphatically. "If not, then we're not going to get better."

It's early in the season, so no matter where you go, there's going to be positivity. There's going to be high expectations. There's going to be an emphasis on hard work. But Klopas sees an emphasis on all that as his team working on something they can control.

"The ball hits the post, goes in, goes out, I mean, the theme can be no excuses but also for us, it can be to control the controllables," explained Klopas. "That's what we put into work every day, our attitude, our focus, our discipline. Those are the things that really matter, sticking together as a team. Because those we can control. All the other things, you know, it's a game."

This all may seem very rah-rah, but again, it's early. And there's a genuine belief among the Fire they can carry the momentum of 2011 into 2012 and reach the postseason for the first time since 2009.

"With the team we've built and knowing how it felt to win at the end of the year, we know what it takes," Nyarko said. "Guys are confident and absolutely positive we'll make the playoffs."

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The Blackhawks were finally getting healthy and now may be missing a key player once again. That depends on how Niklas Hjalmarsson feels after suffering an upper-body injury against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.

It was certainly the toughest part of the Blackhawks' victory, a 6-3 triumph that has the Blackhawks closing in on the Wild. We'll see what the Hjalmarsson update is over the weekend. Until then, let's look at the notables from this one.

What Worked: The offense. We'll give an honorable mention to the penalty kill, which snuffed out all of the Coyotes' chances including a double minor that overlapped the second and third periods. But the offense was just buzzing again. Here's another shocker: the top line is still working just fine. The trio got things started with Nick Schmaltz's goal just 37 seconds into the game (Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik assisted). And much like in their meeting with the Coyotes earlier this month, the Blackhawks needed just about every bit of that offense. While we're on this topic...

What Didn't Work: The first-period defense. The Blackhawks looked like they were in good shape up 3-1 but then they gave up two goals within a minute late in the period. Michal Rozsival had a rough start in his first game since Jan. 15, but overall, the Blackhawks' defense through that first period looked discombobulated. Obviously, it didn't help that the Blackhawks lost Hjalmarsson during the first, either.

[RELATED: Patrick Kane nets hat trick as Blackhawks cruise past Coyotes]

Star of the game: Patrick Kane. One game after Jonathan Toews recorded a hat trick Kane did the same, scoring his 21st, 22nd and 23rd goals of the season. On a night in which the Blackhawks dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen, Kane got a little extra playing time. His first goal came on a first-period shift with Ryan Hartman and Tanner Kero, the second off a long pass from Brent Seabrook and the third with his usual line mates.

He Said It: "I didn't play much before I got hurt, then I missed four weeks with my injury. It wasn't easy but definitely the way the team's playing now, it made it easier for me. It felt like the first game of the season for me but glad we got the victory and glad I was back playing. I enjoyed it." — Michal Rozsival on returning to the Blackhawks' lineup. 

By the Numbers: 

6 – Number of times, in their last eight games, the Blackhawks have scored five or more goals.

342 – Assists for Jonathan Toews, who tied Dennis Hull for 12th all-time in franchise history in that category.

35 – Combined points for the Blackhawks' top liners Jonathan Toews, Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik in their nine games together. The breakdown in those nine games: Toews has 16 points, Panik 10 and Schmaltz nine.

1997 – The last time the Blackhawks had hat tricks in back-to-back regular-season games. Alexei Zhamnov and Eric Daze had them on April 11 and April 13, 1997, respectively.