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Coach Savard's turnaround an impressive feat
Mark Spector in Chicago, National Post
Published: Monday, January 29, 2007


If only for a day, the hopelessness lifted from the Chicago Blackhawks yesterday. Who knew what a relief it really was for head coach Denis Savard?

We all knew it was bleak here: a 10-game losing streak; eight straight losses at home. But you only had to see how Savard-- the former Blackhawks' dangler-turned-coach and the face of this franchise for so many years -- reacted to an overtime win over Calgary to get a sense of the black cloud that has descended on yet another throwaway season in Chicago.

Savard stepped to the podium after Denis Arkhipov's two goals -- one with 44 seconds left in the third period, the other on an overtime power play -- gave the Blackhawks a 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames.

"Thanks for your support guys. I'm serious," he said to the Chicago media. "Big win. Big turnaround."

A moment later he was standing at the podium, unable to finish his thought. Composing himself before the cameras.

Yes, Savard was crying. After a late-January win, in a no-hope season.

"There's a bunch of great guys in that room," he said, before being forced to pause as his eyes welled up. "And I?m proud of them. It felt good. It felt real good."

Even with the "big turnaround," these Blackhawks are still mired in the basement of the Central Division, just three points out of the conference cellar and playing about .360 hockey. Wins have been scarce here for Savard of late, despite a coaching career that began in late November with three straight victories and points in 10 of the first 11 games he was behind the bench.

Years of poor drafting, bad free-agent decisions, and basically running an Original Six franchise into the ground cannot be overcome by a simple coaching change. And as surely as owner Bill Wirtz wears a perpetual tan, so it was that Savard's early success quickly turned, leaving him to shepherd a 10-game losing skein into yesterday's game against Calgary.

As the game unfolded, it looked like another in a long string of "nice try, sorry about the result" games for Chicago. The Blackhawks took a 2-0 lead and outplayed the Flames five-on-five throughout the game. But after a couple of Calgary power-play goals, a promising Chicago rush late in the third period was stymied by Miikka Kiprusoff.

Seconds later, there was Alex Tanguay scoring on a breakaway to give Calgary its first lead of the afternoon with just 3:17 to play.

Tanguay converted on the breakaway for Calgary, and the scene of another disappointing loss was set. But then the unexpected happened: the Blackhawks bounced back, as Arkhipov deflected home the tying goal, then blasted home the winner. The worst power-play unit in the National Hockey League delivered in overtime. "Thank God," Savard said.

Why, if this was Groundhog Day for Smolinski and the 'Hawks, did this game not follow the familiar script?

"Christ, we hadn't won in 10 games," exclaimed Smolinski. "We just couldn't find ways to put teams away. Those are the growing pains this team is going through."

"Every little mistake we do, it costs us," added Chicago captain Martin Lapointe. "That's what's hard about it. You have to stay focussed, stay disciplined. I totally believe we're seeing the light here."

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