Three Dog Night once told us that one is the loneliest number. For the Blackhawks, it is now the most daunting.
After a stunning 7-4 win in Game Five of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Chicago Blackhawks have an opportunity to win their first Stanley Cup since 1961 on Wednesday night in Philadelphia. The Hawks came out of the dressing room with what was universally considered their best effort of the playoffs, and perhaps the entire season, and buried the Flyers right out of the gate.
“We didn’t want to put on a show,” said Kris Versteeg. “We wanted to play a gritty game and I think that’s what we did in the first 20 minutes. That’s the best 20 we’ve played all season.”
From the opening shift, the Blackhawks skated faster and harder than they had in previous games in the series. Marian Hossa thought the Hawks’ pressure was key.
“I felt like everybody had good legs going, and we put lots of pressure on their D,” said Hossa.
John Madden thought the Hawks caught the Flyers by surprise with their effort in the first.
“We were skating really well in the first and caught them off guard,” said Madden.
After the game, some of the Flyers players agreed with Madden’s assessment. Chris Pronger, who has become the villain of the series, was on the ice for six of the Blackhawks seven goals; he was in the penalty box for the seventh.
“They came out hard and we didn’t answer their intensity or their physicality,” said Pronger.
Philadelphia coach Pete Laviolette had a different view of the opening frame.
“I guess if it was nerves, it was nerves. But we got outworked pretty good,” Laviolette said. “We got out-battled. They were quicker to loose pucks. Quicker on the forecheck… We survived probably the first six or seven minutes and they didn’t score. I thought that was the worst of it… Then they capitalized on some opportunities.”
Capitalize the Hawks did, with three goals in six minutes to blow the game wide open. With Scott Hartnell in the box for hi-sticking, Brent Seabrook blasted home a power play goal to get the Blackhawks on the board. Just 3:09 later, Dave Bolland found the back of the net for an even-strength goal and the crowd was starting to warm up. When Versteeg launched a missile past Michael Leighton, the Madhouse on Madison was in full pandemonium.
“They’re the best crowd in hockey,” said Madden.
The Blackhawks made fairly dramatic changes to their lines, and the changes paid huge dividends. Instead of Jonathan Toews starting the game with Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane as he usually had, Quenneville skated Hossa and Tomas Kopecky with his captain. Kane skated with Patrick Sharp and Andrew Ladd on the second line, while Byfuglien opened the game with Bolland and Versteeg on the third.
“We all understand in our locker room it doesn’t matter who you are playing with,” said Toews. “You have to go out there and make a difference. As a team, we played much better at the start. And when everyone is working, we have enough skill across four lines that we’re going to get contributions from everybody.”
The concourses were buzzing during the first intermission, and there was more reason to make noise when the teams took the ice to begin the second period; Brian Boucher replaced Leighton in net for the Flyers for a second time in the series.
However, Hartnell calmed the United Center down when he scored just 32 seconds into the middle period. The goal cut the Hawks lead to 3-1, and gave the roaring masses a moment of pause.
But then the Blackhawks breakout broke the game open again. Patrick Sharp forced a turnover and got the puck to Andrew Ladd, who had a shot blocked and then made a gorgeous pass through traffic to a wide-open Patrick Kane who pushed the Hawks’ lead back to three.
“Sometimes you get the puck in different situations and sometimes you’re just feeling it out there,” said Kane.
In the previous three games, the Blackhawks had been victimized by the Flyers quickly answering key goals. In Game Five, it was the Blackhawks answering the bell time after time.
Kimmo Timonen scored the Flyers’ second goal 95 seconds after Kane’s goal, but then the Dustin Byfuglien Show began.
Roughly two minutes after Timonen’s goal, Byfuglien laid Pronger out with a big hit that appeared to rattle the big Flyers defenseman. Later in the second, “Big Buff” put a fantastic pass from Jonathan Toews in the back of the net. It was official: Byfuglien was awake.
“We had to come back with some fire and just get on them and show them that we weren’t going to quit,” said Byfuglien. “Right from the get-go we just moved our feet and stayed physical.”
Byfuglien led the way, being credited with a game-high nine hits in the game. Despite being out-hit 45-35 in the game, none of the Flyers’ hits had the impact of Byfuglien’s shot on Pronger. After being cross-checked and visibly frustrated by Pronger the entire series, Byfuglien’s confidence was back at an epic level after Game Five.
Every time the Flyers scored, the Blackhawks answered.
James van Riemsdyk scored on an ugly rebound from Antti Niemi early in the third, and Patrick Sharp answered. Simon Gagne scored with just under three minutes left in regulation, and Byfuglien answered with his second goal of the night. In all, Byfuglien’s stat line read like the urban legend he had become in the Vancouver and San Jose series: two goals, two assists, plus-three and nine hits in 18:48 of ice time.
When the dust settled (which is debatable after the United Center crowd was, somehow, louder than in Games One or Two), the Flyers needed a field goal to tie the game. What was telling after the game, though, was the amount of self-evaluation and pause from the Blackhawks players after an enormous win.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t think I played great,” said Kane. “I think in my own end I can be better.”
“We were good, but we can be better,” said Brian Campbell.
With humility as a lense through which the Blackhawks approach the two days before Game Six in Philadelphia, the team knows what lies ahead.
“I think we got two days off here to kind of get ourselves ready for the challenge,” said Kane. “It’s exciting. We have one more win and you have the grand prize.”
Madden, who has won two Stanley Cups in New Jersey, knows the approach the Hawks must have.
“We’ve gotta approach the next game like it’s Game Seven,” said Madden.
Game Seven would be on Friday night in Chicago, but another effort from the Blackhawks like they gave their home fans on Sunday will make that night a celebration, not a competition.