The new Madhouse on Madison?

See those things on the Chicago Blackhawks' faces? And the fans in the background?

They haven't been seen at the United Center in years during the hockey season.

They're called smiles.

On Sunday evening, I went with co-workers Mike Votta and recent New York transplant and noted Islander apologist Jon Palmieri to see the Blackhawks defeat the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski each had a goal and an assist, and had it not been for a penalty shot goal by Jarret Stoll -- and three very friendly goalposts -- Nikolai Khabibulin would have had his first shutout of the season.

The resurgence of the Blackhawks could turn out to be the story of the season, provided it continues. In seven games played since Hall of Famer Denis Savard took over behind the bench two weeks ago, Chicago picked up 11 of a possible 14 points after posting a 4-0-3 record.

Heading into play Monday night, the Hawks have 27 points, just four behind the Calgary Flames for the eighth and final playoff spot in Western Conference. OK, first the playoffs, then a run through the West like the Oilers did last season and before you know it, a 45-year Stanley Cup drought ends with a parade to Grant Park.

OK ... I'll agree (almost) all of that is a reach, and even staring to consider the U.C. the new Madhouse on Madison is a stretch. But if the White Sox can enjoy their resurgence over the past few years, and the Cubs -- lovable losers they always will be when you read news stories like this -- why not the Blackhawks?

What would help is a bigger fan base. For years, the White Sox were mediocre before winning the World Series. The Bulls fell off the NBA radar before becoming relevant again under general manager Jim Paxson and coach Scott Skiles -- Headbandgate be damned. And the Cubs ... well, so long as this place is still standing, they can go 0-for-the-season and would still draw packed houses.

I have this site bookmarked at home to keep an eye on NHL attendance figures. According to the latest numbers, Chicago has the fourth-worst home attendance in the league, drawing 12,740 per game, or about 62 percent of capacity at the United Center. Only the Islanders, New Jersey Devils and St. Louis Blues have worse home numbers. Taking the road numbers into account as well, the Blackhawks rank 27th out of 30 teams, bringing in 14,553 per game -- and that's down some 500 fans from last season.

The three of us on Sunday were trying to estimate how many fans actually were at the game: there's a huge difference between tickets sold and turnstile count. The announced attendance was 11,523, but I figured roughly 7,000 to 7,500 actually witnessed what was truly an entertaining game. Most of the seats on the turn and behind the net in the middle deck were empty, as were large chunks downstairs.

That's disheartening on several levels.

First, this is a team playing with passion for the first time in years. As I wrote in this blog a couple weeks back when Savard was promoted from assistant coach after Trent Yawney was fired, I didn't think the Hall of Famer would be able to turn around a franchise that easily was three steps past moribund. Consider me corrected, to a point. I will be curious to see how Peter Bondra fits in when he makes his Blackhawks debut later this week.

Bondra, who needs two goals for 500 in his career, signed a one-year deal with Chicago on Sunday. A two-time 50-goal scorer, Bondra had 21 last season with the Atlanta Thrashers and was a teammate of Havlat's and Smolinski's in Ottawa in 2003-04 after spending his first 13-plus seasons with the Washington Capitals.

Second, is lack of exposure at home. Palmieri questioned how an Original Six franchise, a proud team with a long and distinguished history can operate like this today. Owner Bill Wirtz, in an ongoing and long-standing feud refuses to broadcast home games on local television.

Until that changes, the Blackhawks may be stuck in 1961.

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