- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

When the Chicago Blackhawks last made the playoffs in 1997, Michael Jordan ruled Chicago, George W. Bush was a first-term governor and Britney Spears was basically an unknown.
Chicago's top five scorers Eric Daze, Tony Amonte, Alexei Zhamnov, Michael Nylander and Steve Sullivan and its No.1 goalie Jocelyn Thibault filled those same roles on the team that finished 19 points out of the playoffs last spring, but new coach Brian Sutter has turned the Blackhawks into a team looking at home-ice advantage for the first round when postseason play begins next week.
The Blackhawks, who managed just 71 points last season under Finnish coach Alpo Suhonen, came to MCI Center last night with 93 points, their most in nine years.
They've accomplished it with those same six players.
"Brian gets the most out of everybody," said Amonte, the senior Blackhawk after eight years in Chicago. "Our core group stayed the same, but we brought in some great character guys like Igor Korolev, Steve Thomas, Tom Fitzgerald and Lyle Odelein. Jon Klemm [a regular on Colorado's 2001 Stanley Cup champions] has done a great job on defense and leads us in ice time, and Phil Housley turned our power play around singlehandedly [from 28th last year to fifth]. A combination of things have added up to put us back where we've wanted to be."
That's what Amonte expected when Sutter was hired, even though the coach hadn't succeeded in Calgary from 1998 to 2000 after being a consistent winner in St. Louis and Boston.
"I played for Darryl Sutter [Brian's brother, now San Jose's coach] here, and I knew Brian was going to demand 100 percent effort," Amonte said. "That's what we needed more than X's and O's. Alpo was a very nice guy, but he let the guys mostly do what they wanted. We needed a leader. Brian set the direction about working hard and doing things his way from day one."
After failing to record its sixth victory before the 16th game in any of the previous four years, Chicago started off 12-4-3 this season despite playing six of its first eight on the road and has never stumbled. Its longest losing streak is two games.
"Coaching is always a convincing job," Sutter said. "You look at the assets of your team and put in a system that benefits those assets. We had a pile of skill that was underachieving. When that happens, you're often poor defensively, which we were. We had to change the mentality and make the players accountable to each other. There hasn't been a lot of magic. We've worked hard, and we've been consistent. People thought I was crazy when I set a goal of 96 points, but we're almost there. We set goals for every 10 games. We kept achieving them, and eventually those points are going to add up."
That classic hard-nosed Sutter style didn't pay off with the Flames, who failed to make the playoffs in any of his three seasons. When a new regime took over in Calgary in June 2000, Sutter returned to his cattle farm in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, as he had done during the 1995-1996 and 1996-1997 seasons. The former St. Louis captain thought his NHL career might be over at 45. But after last season, Chicago general manager Mike Smith kept calling.
"I said I would never coach again," Sutter said. "But I've always had a lot of respect for Mike, the Wirtz family [the Blackhawks owners] and [senior vice president] Bob Pulford," Sutter said. "Four of my brothers played for Chicago. There's a mystique about the city and the Blackhawks. And I still love the game and want to win the Cup."
So does Amonte, who just missed out when the New York Rangers traded him to Chicago in March 1994, less than three months before they won their only Cup since 1940.
"I know my time is ticking," said the 31-year-old Amonte, who's heading into free agency. "I figure I have four or five good years left to try to win a Cup. I've hated watching the playoffs the past four years. But I knew our time would come. I believed in the organization, and now we're back. The town is slowly warming up to us again. It was great when the [White] Sox and then the Bears made the playoffs. We've had a great home record all year [27-7-5-1, second in the NHL to Detroit]. Getting home ice for the first round would be a huge accomplishment for us after not making the playoffs the last four years."

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