In a game that many, including CommittedIndians, billed at the Game of the Year, the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks gave the viewing audience every ounce of effort we could have asked for in an incredible game that was really a tale of four period.
In the first, the Hawks came out with a stampede of offense. After failing to register a shot for five minutes, the flood gates opened as Evgeni Nabokov allowed three goals on the first six shots he faced. What made matters worse for San Jose was that the three goals came from three different lines for the Hawks.
Dustin Byfuglien started the part with his 14th of the year at 5:02 into the first. Only 48 seconds later it was Troy Brouwer lighting the lamp for his 16th of the year. Finally, Andrew Ladd poked in a fat rebound at 8:23 for his 10th on the campaign. The Sharks, who had been off for four days before the game and had won their last five coming in were absolutely shell-shocked, and burned their timeout before the game was even half way through the first period. The Hawks were completely dominating the Sharks, controlling the puck on either end and stifling the Sharks first power play in their defensive zone.
But after the timeout, things settled down. Joe Pavelski got behind Duncan Keith and scored on a nice redirect at 11:52 to cut the lead to two, and, more importantly, the momentum of the Blackhawks.
In the second period the Sharks turned the tables on the Blackhawks. In a period that saw the Sharks get 19 shots on Cristobal Huet and some sloppy passing in their defensive zone, the Hawks were fortunate to escape with a 3-2 lead. It was Pavelski, again, scoring for the Sharks, this time at the mid point of a power play to bring some life back into the building and some breath into the Sharks’ offense. When the second period concluded, it was clear that the Sharks were not going to roll over and get blown out like they did in the Hawks first game in California.
Just under five minutes into the third, Manny Malhotra got just enough of a Rob Blake blast to escape Huet and tie the game at three after a bad turnover by Brent Sopel behind the net. The Sharks were taking it to the Hawks, and now had the momentum. But just as San Jose did in the first period, Joel Quenneville used his timeout to perfection and called his exhausted group of road warriors together to re-focus their effort.
Whatever Quenneville said should have been recorded and given to every other coach in Chicago, because it worked.
From that point on, the Blackhawks energy miraculously reappeared and the action became a spirited back-and-forth affair with great defense and skating from both teams worthy of the hype this game had received. Make no mistake, this was a game being played at playoff-level intensity and both teams knew exactly what was on the line.
With around eight minutes left in the game, Keith made maybe the biggest defensive play of the Hawks season to date. His fellow Canadian Olympian Joe Thornton had the puck sprinting up the right board and wound up for a cannon shot on net. Keith laid out and took the full force of the shot around the ankle, blocking the shot and perhaps saving the game. Keith was obviously in pain after the play, but his grimaces and the tie score reminded Hawks fans why the organization just committed 13 years to him.
Thornton was called for a delay of game penalty with 87 seconds remaining in regulation, and the Hawks were able to get one last rush at Nabokov. The San Jose netminder was up to the task, though, and the game was extended to overtime.
After the three periods of regulation, both teams had registered 37 shots. Many of the shots by both teams were in traffic, heavily contested, and the saves by both Nabokov and the much-maligned Huet were exceptional. Indeed, many questions regarding Huet’s ability to play big in a big game were answered on Thursday night. Despite the defense in front of him taking the entire second and most of the third period off, and in the face of a team that has nine players travelling to Vancouver in February as Olympians, Huet was up to the task and played a magnificent game.
In the overtime, after the barrage that both goalies faced, only two shots made their way to the net. Both were from the Blackhawks, and the second was the second goal of the game for Brouwer, his 17th of the game. Niklas Hjalmarsson made an aggressive move to take the puck away high in the Hawks’ defensive zone, and got the outlet to Brouwer on the right boards. Kris Versteeg did a great job of streaking hard to the net and providing just enough of a screen for Brouwer, who’s wrist shot was true to end an exhausting game.
For the night, Brent Seabrook was credited with five blocked shots to lead the team, Brian Campbell led the team with a +3, Ladd led the team with four hits to compliment his first period goal, and Brouwer continued his breakout season with two goals on only three shots and was credited with three hits.
The Blackhawks have now won three of four games against the Sharks, but the irony of this great game going into overtime is that, despite winning the game, the Hawks still trail the Sharks by one point in the Western Conference standings.
In the seventh game of a long road trip that’s included a goalie controversy, blown leads and topless players in a limo in Vancouver, the focus, drive and will to win displayed by the Blackhawks on Thursday night serves notice that they’re absolutely for real, and are a legitimate threat to win it all this year.