On Saturday afternoon, 22,144 hockey fans were privileged to witness history.
The Chicago Blackhawks skated fairly well in the first period, despite allowing the first tally of the game. Antti Niemi didn’t see a shot from the left circle because of a perfect screen (being watched by Dustin Byfuglien, I might add) and the Hawks trailed 1-0. However, Andrew Ladd and Niklas Hjalmarsson each tallied goals for Chicago to give the Hawks the lead at the end of the frame. Ladd put back a soft rebound, very uncharacteristic of Pekka Rinne in the series, and Hjalmarsson received an excellent screen from Bryan Bickell and somehow missed everything but the back of the net on a long shot through lots of traffic.
In the second period, the Blackhawks played perhaps their most complete period of the 2010 calendar year. A goal from Tomas Kopecky, who had just left the penalty box, extended the lead to 3-1 and the Hawks appeared to be running away with Game Five. If not for an awful no-look pass from Patrick Kane, resulting in a short-handed goal for Nashville, the Hawks would have broken the Predators in the second period. But that late shorty for Nashville kept the deficit at one heading to the third period.
The third was almost a complete contradiction to the second. Nashville controlled the action, and the Blackhawks suddenly couldn’t get the puck out of their own zone. Despite a number of quality saves in traffic by Niemi, the Hawks would allow tying and go-ahead goals in the middle of the period. The building was dead. The energy was gone. The team that had dominated in the first 40 minutes had disappeared, and the team that had been blown away in Games One and Three was suddenly skating in their place.
Late in the third, coach Joel Quenneville used his timeout and removed Niemi from the ice for a crucial push to tie the game with 90 seconds left in the game. Less than 30 seconds later, it appeared that Marian Hossa had sealed the Hawks fate when he took a bad five-minute boarding penalty with 1:03 left on the clock. The Blackhawks would now have to kill a penalty while trying to tie the game; they would be skating five-on-five (at best) without a body in front of their net.
The Preds got the puck and controlled it for most of that last minute. But Jonathan Toews finally was able to clear the zone with around 20 seconds left and, in a sweeping statement of desperation, a flurry of red bodies flew to the net. With 13.6 seconds left, Patrick Kane got a rebound and put home the tying goal.
The United Center was belligerent. Fans were screaming louder than that building has likely heard since Michael Jordan left the Bulls 12 years ago. It was hard to hear “Chelsea Dagger” over the roar.
And it was deserved, because those screaming fans had indeed witnessed history. Kane was the first player ever to tie a playoff game short-handed with less than a minute to play.
Let me repeat that: before Saturday’s goal by Kane, a short-handed goal in the final minute to tie a playoff game had never happened in the history of the NHL.
Kane’s goal did only tie the game, though. The Hawks would now have to start overtime with Hossa still in the box for four more minutes.
As they have done the entire series, the Blackhawks were up to the challenge. When Hossa left the box, the Blackhawks had killed 21 Nashville power plays in the series. Arguably the biggest part of that stat, and the player who should have been Saturday’s Number One Star, has been Brent Sopel. Sopel has played over 46 heroic minutes in the last two Blackhawks wins, and he made perhaps the biggest play of the series as Hossa’s penalty ended.
The Hawks gained control of the puck and Sopel advanced the puck up the ice in the closing seconds of Hossa’s penalty. Sopel has never been confused for an offensive defenseman, so the expectation of most fans (and apparently the Predators players) was that Sopel would dump the puck and try to get a change before Hossa came back on the ice.
Instead, Sopel carried the puck into Nashville ice and skated a late around the entire perimeter of the Predators zone before throwing the puck at the net. In what felt like an eternity, the puck crept through traffic to a wide open (and barely out of the box) Hossa, who had a wide open net in which to deposit the game-winner.
Hossa became the first player since Wayne Gretzky in 1993 to serve a five-minute major penalty and score the game-winning goal in the same contest. Nice company.
For the fans that attended without cough drops on Saturday, either consume some hot tea or write your boss a note on Monday that simply says “One Goal.”
The Blackhawks will try to close out their first round series with the Preds on Monday night. The puck is scheduled to drop at 8:00 PM CST.