After a couple rough losses the Blackhawks didn’t have an easy test on Monday night, travelling to the defending Atlantic Division champion Buffalo Sabres and face the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Ryan Miller, and Calder Trophy winner, Tyler Myers.
It didn’t get much easier 14 seconds into the game when the first shot Corey Crawford faced in the NHL this year ended up behind him in the net, and the Hawks were already trailing. Less than three minutes later, Crawford had another shot slip past him and the hole was even bigger. Trailing 2-0 against Miller, the Most Outstanding Player from February’s Olympics, is game-over most nights.
But a late first period goal from hometown hero Patrick Kane cut the lead in half and appeared to give the Blackhawks some momentum. All of that changed with 5:47 left in the first period when Niklas Hjalmarsson hit Buffalo wing Jason Pominville and slammed his head into the boards.
Pominville went down in a heap on the ice and a scrum broke loose on top of Hjalmarsson as Sabres came to the defense of their teammate. Hjalmarsson received a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct, and the hit will be reviewed by the NHL.
Pominville left the ice with his head in a brace on a stretcher, but was able to wave to the crowd as he left the playing surface. He was reportedly not taken to a hospital and, according to the Sabres, has a concussion and a gash above his eye that required 7-8 stitches. It was an ugly hit that, with new head-shot rules in place this year, could cost Hjalmarsson some games when the league takes a look at the hit tonight.
The Blackhawks, already without Brian Campbell on their blue line, would have to climb up hill without Hjalmarsson as well going into the break trailing 2-1. After one period, though, the stats were ugly across the board for Chicago: the Sabres out-shot the Hawks 13-5 in the period, lost one of their key players on the blue line, and had a rookie goaltender fighting off rapid-fire opportunities.
However, the Hawks killed the five-minute penalty against Hjalmarsson to close the first period and appeared to have some momentum despite being outplayed throughout the first frame. Somehow, they still had life.
In the second period, the Blackhawks that fans have been waiting for came out of the dressing room.
These were the Hawks that won the Stanley Cup in June. These were the devastating, do-what-they-want Blackhawks that dominated their way to the ultimate prize last year. These were Champions.
Ironic, though, that the goal that tied the game and jump started the dominance came from 19-year-old Nick Leddy, his first career tally in the NHL. Not surprisingly, Jonathan Toews went straight to the net and retrieved the souvenir for the kid; I’m not sure if Chris Pronger was in the building, but the Captain wasn’t taking any chances that Leddy’s first goal was going anywhere but home with the rookie.
From there, it was all about Marian Hossa.
Hossa was good last year, but he was playing hurt. He didn’t start his 2009-10 season until Thanksgiving because of major shoulder surgery over the summer. It was later revealed that he also hurt a knee in the playoffs and had arthroscopic work done to clean that up after the Hawks won the Cup this summer.
Now we are seeing what a healthy Hossa is all about. And it’s scary.
His first goal, a breakaway after a gorgeous cross-ice outlet pass from Bryan Bickell, was ridiculous. Miller is in very, very select company at the top of the list of best NHL netminders, and Hossa made him look silly as he accelerated into the zone, faked a hard slap shot, and wristed the puck past him. Hossa’s second goal again undressed Miller, making the Michigan State grad look green.
Hossa now has five points (three goals, two assists) and is plus-four in only three games.
The Hawks defense in the second period shut down the Sabres and protected Crawford, as the Hawks out-shot the Sabres 17-10 in the period. Despite allowing 35 shots in the game, once the Blackhawks took the lead they carried the flow of the game. This was a complete performance from a team that was forced to skate Nick Boynton 23:06 and John Scott (on the ice… skated?) 16:51 on the night. The Hawks killed all five Buffalo penalties, including a five-minute major, and Crawford showed some intestinal fortitude by getting his act together after two quick goals to shut down the Sabres for most of the rest of the night.
Intrigue only builds for the Blackhawks for the next two days. The NHL will review the Hjalmarsson hit and he will probably receive a suspension (likely one game). The game that he could miss: Saturday night at the United Center, when the Blackhawks host… the Buffalo Sabres.