In the hardest hitting game the Blackhawks have played yet this year, the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins saw what the young Hawks have to offer in a thrilling overtime victory.
From the opening drop of the puck it was clear that the Penguins were trying to send a physical message. Matt Cooke and Duncan Keith exchanged blows in the first period, two high checks ended with Keith in the box for two minutes, and later Cooke sucker punched Keith in the face for the effort. Thanks to WGN’s camera work and a slow-motion, circled telestrator showing the obvious punch from two angles, Cooke should be receiving a love letter from the league office.
The Cooke-Keith battle wasn’t isolated in this game, though. Brent Seabrook, Mike Rupp, Adam Eaton and former Blackhawks Craig Adams all hit hard and a lot in the game. Seabrook led all skaters with nine credited hits in the game, with the ninth being a leveling blow to Evgeni Malkin late in the third period. Adams had a highlight reel knockdown of his own, putting the Oh! in the middle of a Brian Campbell spin-o-rama.
Malkin wasn’t just getting hit, though. In the second period, he lost a faceoff to Colin Fraser and proceeded to pin Fraser on his back and hit him repeatedly in the chest with his stick. Once Fraser was up, Sergei Gonchar took a shot at Fraser from behind, knocking him into Malkin, who took another swipe at Fraser.
While this exchange was taking place, Campbell was skating along minding his own business about five feet away. Thankfully, Hawks’ color man Eddie Olczyk called Campbell out for not only being soft, but a bad teammate for watching Fraser, who’s generously listed at 6-1, 190 pounds, get pinballed back and forth by Malkin (6-3, 200) and Gonchar (6-2, 215).
Despite the hard hitting and many exchanges of words from both sides, the action remained fluid. Marian Hossa, who was booed every time he touched the puck by his former fans in Pittsburgh, scored his third goal of the season (in only six games) mid-way through the first period to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead.
That lead would hold until the Penguins pulled Marc-Andre Fleury with 99 seconds remaining for a faceoff in the Hawks’ zone. Malkin unleashed a missile from the point that was redirected in traffic to a wide open Jordan Staal, who tied the game.
The Staal goal was the first allowed by Antti Niemi in nearly 120 minutes in the net; his last start was a shutout, and he earned every bit of the victory on Saturday night. Niemi kept 30 of the Penguins 31 shots out of the net in one of the better performances by any netminder in the league this season. He did allow the goal, though, so another Hawks game would be decided in overtime.
Half way through the extra frame, the Hawks took advantage of a lazy pass by the Penguins in the Hawks’ zone and carried a three-on-two rush into the zone. Brian Campbell whiffed on his first shot attempt, took the puck deeper into the zone and threw it on net. Fleury allowed a soft rebound, that Kris Versteeg handled, redirected to his forehand around Fleury with a defenseman on his back, and put the puck home as he was being checked from behind for the game winner.
There were a number of subplots to this game that were as intriguing as the game was exciting.
First, I personally found it interesting that Sidney Crosby didn’t play. Crosby was a late morning scratch with an apparent groin issue, which Crosby claimed had been bothering him for a couple weeks.
Obviously he had been in a lot of pain: he had 11 points in his last three games before Saturday.
But in Crosby’s absence, Cooke and company felt able to take cheap shots at the Blackhawks all night, knowing that their best player was sitting in a suite somewhere sipping a wine cooler. Malkin, who we’ve already discussed, is big enough and physical to handle his own business, but I found it interesting that the Penguins were as physical as they were with Crosby out of uniform.
When you put this absence in the context that Crosby hasn’t faced the Blackhawks in three years, it starts to sound like a pattern; he missed only five games last year (including the Hawks) and Saturday was the first game he’s missed this season.
Another interesting development from this game was Chicago coach Joel Quenneville’s lines to start the game, and the evolution of his groupings during the game.
Dustin Byfuglien took a stupid boarding penalty on Friday night, and was demoted to the third line for the final half of the third period. On Saturday, Byfuglien found himself starting on the third line with John Madden and Troy Brouwer; Versteeg was back at wing with Jonathan Toews and Hossa, while Andrew Ladd was bumped up to be with Patrick Sharp (who was back at center) and Patrick Kane. Byfuglien played 19:45, though, which is well over his season average.
Also perhaps in the doghouse is Tomas Kopecky, who has been an overwhelming disappointment so far this year. At -7, he has the worst plus-minus rating on the team and hasn’t been able to establish a role on the roster. On Saturday, Kopecky was a healthy scratch in favor of Jordan Hendry. Hendry didn’t even play five minutes in Pittsburgh, but Quenneville thought he would give the Hawks a better effort.
In the third period, Quenneville rotated his defenseman to put Brent Sopel with Niklas Hjalmarsson for nearly the entire final period. That meant Cam Barker was skating with Campbell, and it appeared the Barker-Campbell pair was the third pair. Barker played under 14 minutes on Saturday, with Sopel eclipsing 15 and Hjalmarsson playing over 17. Hjalmarsson was credited with four blocked shots, which tied Keith for the team lead.
The final statistic that was incredible was, playing in Pittsburgh 23 hours after the puck dropped in Chicago, Seabrook and Keith logged huge minutes. Seabrook played over 28 minutes of physical hockey, while Keith led the team with over 31 minutes of ice time. The Hawks top pair of defenseman, in my opinion the best pair in the NHL right now, were matched up with Malkin all night and did a great job of shutting him down.
After all the minutes played by Keith and Seabrook, and all the cheap shots from Cooke, the game ended on a great goal by Versteeg. If the Eastern Conference didn’t recognize the Blackhawks as being for real, they better now.