Athletes and coaches like to say they treat every game the same, but there are always showdowns that feel a little different, a little heightened, a little more important. And games against the Detroit Red Wings have always meant a little more to the Blackhawks, just as they have to the well-lubricated fans in the 300 level of the United Center.
"You can feel it going into games, you can feel the buzz in the crowd during games -- the animosity, not just from the players, you can sense it from the fans," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "They even have their chants that represent that."
Indeed, Friday night's game (the 725th meeting all-time between the teams) won't be the last time "De-troit Sucks!" echoes through the Madhouse, but unless the two teams meet in the playoffs -- a distinct first-round possibility -- it was the last time it happened during a game between division and conference rivals. The Red Wings are headed to the Eastern Conference next season as part of the NHL's sweeping realignment.
And love them or hate them (OK, hate them), they'll surely be missed in Chicago.
"I don't mind the new realignment that the league decided to go with, but the one thing that does suck is not playing the Red Wings a number of times," Hawks winger Patrick Sharp said. "I think the fans will always appreciate the rivalry, and when we do see them it'll be a special game. I like going to Detroit and playing in their building, I like it when they come here. They're fun games to play in."
Sharp actually hopes absence makes the hate grow fonder.
"Sometimes, when you play a team six or eight times in a season, people think that builds a rivalry, but sometimes it kills them because you see the same faces over and over," he said. "Seeing these guys once or twice a year, you'll get fired up for those games, the fans will too, and maybe that'll spark things."
The new realignment will have every Western Conference team play every Eastern Conference team twice each season, once in each city.
"We're going to play them next year, we'll still have a home and home," Detroit defenseman Brendan Smith said. "I don't think you can ever lose a rivalry. It'll just be heightened when we do play them."
And if the season ended today, the Hawks and Red Wings would meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- a fitting conclusion to their tenure as conference rivals.
"It would be a lot of fun," Smith said. "I think everybody in the hockey world would love that. It'd be a lot of fun for us and a lot of fun for everybody."