This series didn’t figure to be easy, and after a bad first game the Blackhawks had lots of questions. Fans wanted better play, and answers, after a blow out loss to begin the Western Conference Semifinals.
Game Two didn’t disappoint.
After five minutes, it looked like it might have been the last chance for Hawks fans to watch their team at the United Center. Antti Niemi allowed two quick goals right out of the gate, and the team again looked flat at the start. But 55 minutes, and many heart attacks later, the Blackhawks and Niemi were skating off with a victory.
Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson each scored in the opening five minutes to give the Canucks the early 2-0 lead. The fans at the United Center were depressed, stunned and wondering where the Blackhawks that ended the season with 112 points had gone. Credit the Canucks, who put on a great passing display early and capitalized on some bad penalties from the Hawks.
But the Blackhawks showed a lot of resolve. The series was on the brink of being over in 70 minutes, but the young Hawks wouldn’t be denied.
Brent Seabrook, who played arguably his best game of the season, scored less than three minutes after Samuelsson’s goal (which was scored with Seabrook in the box) to cut the deficit, and the momentum. From there through the end of the second period, the Blackhawks carried the action but couldn’t capitalize. After 40 minutes, the score was still 2-1 in favor of Vancouver.
In the second, the Blackhawks had a number of great chances. Adam Burish got stoned on one of a handful of breakaway chances the Hawks failed to convert, but every stop in made in the first two periods was a credit to Roberto Luongo being on his game. Luongo was magnificent, making up for a number of mental lapses from his defenseman in the middle frame, but the Blackhawks were the aggressor.
The third period was a hectic, all-over-the-place, desperate brand of hockey in which the Blackhawks again controlled the action but were regularly frustrated by Luongo. On the other end of the ice, Niemi continued to keep the puck out of the net, matching Luongo save-for-save. In one of the brief moments in the third period where the Canucks had a strong scoring chance and were able to keep the puck in the Hawks zone, Duncan Keith was whistled for holding Samuelsson’s stick. At a crucial moment in a tight game, the Blackhawks would be short-handed.
But a bad turnover and a great outlet pass from Seabrook got the puck to Patrick Sharp in space and he was able to finally beat Luongo with a great move to tie the game. The stadium was back on its feet. The volume was back in the building. And, most importantly, the Blackhawks had a breath of life back in their game. Momentum was wearing red, and would stay that way for the final 13 minutes.
At 13:11, the Blackhawks killed another critical penalty when they were called for too many men on the ice. It was the fourth time in this postseason the Hawks have been called for the infraction, the most in the NHL. (Too many men has been called 25 times already in the 2010 playoffs, already eight times more than all of 2009′s postseason.) On that penalty kill, the Blackhawks harassed the Canucks in their own zone for a good part of the two minutes, and continued to control the flow of the game.
The Blackhawks continued to move the puck well and attack the passing lanes defensively. Dustin Byfuglien, who played on the blue line through the last month of the season, the Nashville series, moved to forward for Game One against the Canucks, moved back to defense as Joel Quenneville tried to find the right combination of players yet again. However, Byfuglien spent most of the night skating as a forward as Quenneville adjusted his roster on the fly. After the rough start, the Blackhawks played with five defensemen.
Why did the Hawks skate only five defensemen? Troy Brouwer found himself in Quenneville’s dog house yet again. Brouwer’s continued struggles led to him playing just 5:31 on Monday night, the lowest of any Hawks player.
Those five defensemen played very well in the final two periods, though. Seabrook was the game’s Number Two Star, scoring the Hawks first goal and assisting on Sharps game-tying goal and then Kris Versteeg’s game-winner with 90 seconds left. He was also credited with one blocked shots and a game-high eight hits (no other player in the game had more than four). Seabrook was also +4 on the night.
Niklas Hjalmarsson led all Blackhawks with 24:58 ice time, of which 5:55 was short-handed. Keith played 14 seconds fewer than Hjalmarsson, and was credited with an assist (a gorgeous pass to Versteeg for the game-winner) and was +3 on the evening. Brent Sopel, who was a hero in the first round against Nashville but struggled in Game One, was again a shot-blocking machine; he was credited with a game-high five blocked shots and also skated a game-high 6:40 short-handed. Brian Campbell was quietly effective as well.
Versteeg played perhaps his best game in a Chicago uniform, capped with the winning goal. He was also credited with an assist on Seabrook’s goal and was +3 in the game, but the stat sheet doesn’t do his impact on the game justice. On a line with Andrew Ladd (who was also fantastic on Monday night), many fans wondered where Versteeg’s offensive contributions had gone; he had no impact on the Hawks fist seven playoff games. He arrived just in time, however, as his active skates and great effort to get the puck to the net and continued effort to be a part of the action led to the dramatic game-winning goal.
Niemi finished allowed just the two early goals despite facing 26 shots; Luongo allowed three of the Hawks 36 shots to reach the net.
When the dust settled (after Patrick Kane added an empty-net goal for his sixth of the playoffs), the Blackhawks had a 4-2 win. Their backs were clearly against the wall early, but they came back and found a way to win.