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The NHL's salary cap – by its very nature – is designed to prevent what the Chicago Blackhawks have done.

It's there to create artificial parity, to level the playing field and give everyone a shot at a championship. It's a dynasty-killing, collectivist construct that commissioner Gary Bettman fought so dearly for back in the lockout of 2005.

It doesn't like greatness.

And, for the first time, it has finally started to bring Chicago back to the pack this season.

The Blackhawks have been a terrific team since 2008-09, when 20-year-old Jonathan Toews was appointed captain and led a young team to the Western Conference final. That was their first of five trips to the NHL's final four in seven years. It was also the prelude to a stretch of three Stanley Cups in six seasons, making the 'Hawks the first team to do so since the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.

(That dominance has been good for the game. All the winning has made one of the biggest cities in North America a hockey town again, with massive revenues and ratings and even minor hockey taking off like never before.)

Every off-season, the Blackhawks had cap casualties. But GM Stan Bowman's particular genius was he had a core of seven elite players all signed for bargain money long-term. For years, not one of Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook or Niklas Hjalmarsson made more than $6.3-million in a season, which allowed Bowman to maintain a top team even as the rest of the roster played musical chairs.

That run ended last summer. The new contracts of Toews and Kane ate up 30 per cent of the cap. Sharp was given away to Dallas, a division rival. They lost Johnny Oduya and Brandon Saad, two huge-minute men in last year's playoffs.

And those losses have hurt.

The Blackhawks are in a bit of trouble in the first round. In a pivotal Game 3 on Sunday, they coughed up a lead in the third period to lose 3-2 to the St. Louis Blues, putting them down 2-1 in a series in which they don't have home-ice advantage.

This has the looks of a long, hard-fought series. It's probably been the best to watch in Round 1. But it's also clear already that the Blues' young guns, such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Robby Fabbri, are going to be tough for the Blackhawks to contain, in part because their depth has been whittled away for years.

While the Blackhawks are still a good team, they're no longer a great one.

Let's back up that heresy with a few facts.

This season, Chicago was actually outscored at even strength. It was 20th in goals at 5-on-5 and 16th in goals against.

For the first time in eight years, the Hawks were outshot. Their puck possession – long a defining strength – dipped to 51 per cent, the lowest since Toews has been captain. They were 22nd on the penalty kill and gave up 20 more scoring chances than they generated.

The only reason the Blackhawks were able to creep up over the 100-point mark was a top power play – including Kane's league-leading 37 points – and a great season from starting goalie Corey Crawford.

Other teams noticed.

"It is without question [their weakest team in years]," one rival executive said on the weekend. "Don't discount how important the loss of Oduya was. They're a mediocre team at even strength now."

Oduya may have been the Blackhawks' fourth defenceman, but because coach Joel Quenneville leaned so heavily on his top four, he still logged almost 25 minutes a game during last year's playoffs. Without him, the Blackhawks are essentially down to three reliable defenders – and there's debate over putting Seabrook in that group given his season.

The other complicating factor for the Blackhawks is that almost all of the teams that have won the Stanley Cup in recent years have been excellent even-strength teams. It's tough to rely solely on special teams when up to 80 per cent of games are played 5-on-5, and it highlights how different this Chicago team is from previous incarnations that it spends this much time in its own end.

It remains to be seen if that's a fatal flaw against the Blues, a franchise with so many playoff demons that only the analytics folks were picking them in this series.

But this is also a different St. Louis team, one with many players who weren't in key roles in meltdowns past. The Blues' top line overwhelmed Chicago's best defenders in Chicago on Sunday, something few teams have managed over the years. The Blackhawks are no longer an obvious favourite, not with this roster and not with how loose they've been with the puck all year.

They could still win this series, but it's hard not to look at their season and see the damage the salary cap has done. Chicago has been pulled down to the same level as St. Louis, and Dallas, and a half dozen other contending teams that have a shot at a Cup this year. They're no longer above the fray.

It simply took seven years to get them there.