Through good times and bad, the Chicago Blackhawks have long been one of the NHL's most popular teams. An Original Six team with a rabid and knowledgeable fan base, the Blackhawks pack 'em in whether it's in the friendly confines of the United Center, where they have sold out 202 consecutive games, or on the road where their iconic logo often outnumbers the home colors.
All of that has been ratcheted up a notch lately as the high-flying 'Hawks are soaring to spectacular heights this season, setting an NHL mark for the longest regulation unbeaten streak to open the season at 24 games (21-0-3).
The Blackhawks blew into the Mile High city on Friday to complete the back half of a home and home series with the Colorado Avalanche at the sold out Pepsi Center. They brought with them a breathe of fresh air for a league desperate for some positive PR in the wake of yet another labor dispute that put the NHL on ice, or in this case off it, for the better part of four months.
"It's great for the league and it's great for hockey," Patrick Kane said prior to Friday night's game. "It's very important to grow our game especially in the United States and try to get people to view the game as the best game in the world."
For a veteran team that still sports a chip on its shoulder after being bounced by the Phoenix Coyotes in last year's playoffs, the endless questions about the streak and increased media attention comes with the territory. To a man in the Chicago locker room, no one is looking too far down the road.
"I think we're still just trying to take it one game at a time," Kane said. "It's not like we're looking ahead at going undefeated the whole season, we're just trying to win the next game and keep the streak alive."
As for Kane, who spent the lockout playing in Switzerland, he is enjoying the best start of his 6-year career.
"I think I'm just trying to take it game by game, just like the team," said Kane, who came into the weekend with a team-high 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists). "We're trying not to be satisfied and that's the same mindset for myself."
The Hawks' success has been more than just Kane though. It has been a total team effort with 13 players notching game-winning goals, including tough guy Daniel Carcillo, who potted his first goal of the season with 50 seconds remaining to down the Avalanche on Wednesday.
"We know we can win in those close games like we have," said Kane. "We've won 13 one-goal games and a different guy stepping up every night. It's pretty fun."
More than just his team's record-setting start and balanced scoring from all four lines, head coach Joel Quenneville has been most impressed with the focus of his team as it continues to stick to a grueling schedule compacted by the lockout.
"I think we're having fun with it and looking at each game and trying to max out everything we can that night," said Quenneville.
"We're looking in the short term and maybe after the game you look a little broader than that. I think the guys' focus has been in the right place and consistent with how they're preparing. I love their consistency but down the stretch of games we're finding ways to win."
Along the way the Hawks have built a nice cushion over the rest of the Western Conference with 45 points, 10 more than the next closest competitor (Anaheim).
With the added notoriety comes the pressure of knowing that the next opponent will bring its best effort as they look to be the team that knocks the Hawks off their unbeaten perch.
"I think that every game we've been in lately is a playoff environment. The intensity takes on an almost Game 7 mentality for our opponents," Quenneville said. "That's the challenge that we're facing and the guys still welcome it and are taking it on and dealing with it."
The Blackhawks have not only been the talk of the hockey world, but the rest of the sports universe seems to have latched on to the streak, which rivals the unbeaten streak by the NBA's Miami Heat. Even the Heat's LeBron James is chiming in on the Hawks start, taking to the Twitterverse to laud their success.
"I think it's great for the sport. You turn on ESPN and it's one of the first stories on and you don't see that much with hockey so you know you must be doing something right," Kane said.
"It's cool that the most popular athlete in the world is talking about us right now. I like that."
Still, Kane wouldn't get sucked into the rising debate over which streak is more impressive.
"They're at 16 games and we are at 24 unbeaten so I don't know. It's kind of up in the air (which streak is better)," he said.
"When you look at theirs I don't think it's even the longest (streak) in the NBA this year, I think the Clippers have 19 or something. But it's cool to be compared (with the Heat). I think both streaks are unbelievable in their own right."