How Big Was Sunday’s Win for the Blackhawks?

On Sunday in Detroit, the Blackhawks won a fantastic game 4-3 in a shootout. The action was back-and-forth, there was great goaltending for both teams, and even the casual fan had to get excited when Kris Versteeg threw down with Patrick Eaves.This was a win in the middle of January, though. Certainly a win 60 percent of the way into the regular season doesn’t get a monkey off the back of an entire franchise… right?

For years, the Red Wings have owned the Blackhawks. While “Dollar Bill” Wirtz was throwing the fans down the drain at the expense of squeezing every last penny out of the 4,000 people at each game, Detroit was stamping their name on the Stanley Cup. For 18 consecutive years, the Red Wings have been in the playoffs; indeed, they have finished in first or second place in the Central Division in every season since 1990-91.

Detroit has become the Red Army, while the Blackhawks have been the red-headed stepchild.

Last year was special for Chicago hockey. After spending most of this decade getting ready for baseball during the final six weeks of the season, Blackhawks fans had something to cheer for into late April and May. The magical run came to an end just short of the Cup Finals though… and it was at the hands of, you guessed it, Detroit.

Let’s jump in the Flashback Machine and think about this storyline, though. A young Chicago team gets bullied for a decade by a team from Detroit, and can’t seem to get past them to achieve their ultimate goal of a championship. Ring any bells?

Yeah, I thought so.

From the 1987-88 season through the 1989-90 season, the Bulls had to settle for a notch on the Pistons’ championship belt. Each year, Michael Jordan continued to build his legend as one of the great individual players in the NBA, but he couldn’t seem to get past Chuck Daly and his “Jordan Rules.”

It wasn’t until 1990-91 that Jordan matured enough to realize that ball movement and a team game was what it would take to beat the hated rival from Michigan. That year, Jordan’s Bulls swept the Pistons out of the Eastern Conference Finals and started the last great dynasty in professional sports (sorry, Patriots’ fans; win six in eight years and we’ll talk).

Sunday had a very similar feeling to that day in 1991 when Isiah Thomas led his team to the showers before the final seconds had ticked off the clock. No, the Blackhawks didn’t send the Red Wings home for the summer, but they did make a bold statement.

The win was the third consecutive victory over the Wings for the Blackhawks, and the second straight in Detroit. In December, the Blackhawks shut out the Red Wings 3-0 twice in four days, with the first win coming in Chicago and the second on the road in Motor City.

But those two wins were against a Red Wings team that had every excuse in the book. Most of their best players were injured, and the games were right after Christmas. Certainly once the Red Wings had their roster back together they would be able to handle their business.

Which brings us back to Sunday.

After a hard-fought game in Columbus on Saturday afternoon, a game in which the Blackhawks exceptional defense allowed five goals to a last-place team, coach Joel Quenneville switched goaltenders and hoped to receive a better effort in front of the net.

The Red Wings had many of their stars back, including Henrik Zetterberg, and came out hitting and shooting. The fight between Versteeg and Eaves likely put a smile on Bill Laimbeer’s face somewhere, and the Wings put more shots on net than any Blackhawks opponent this year (38).

Just like Jordan’s Bulls, the Blackhawks looked better than the Red Wings early. The Hawks quickly jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, but the veteran Red Wings never seemed to miss a beat. Slowly, Detroit skated back into the game and early in the second period they had tied the Blackhawks at two.

The broadcast crew for NBC, which did a miserable job of butchering names and providing inaccurate information throughout the game, even made a point to ask the little bald guy standing between the benches if the Blackhawks were rattled by the big, bad Red Wings storming back to tie the game.

The answer was no.

Then again, when Eaves tied the game in the third period, the question was raised again: were the young Blackhawks in shock that their lead was gone again?

The answer was, again, no.

In a dramatic overtime period that opened with an incredible Niemi save just seconds into the frame, the Hawks never looked frustrated or out of sorts. They just kept fighting like it was any other game, and certainly looked like the team dictating the pace for most of the game.

When Patrick Sharp ended the game in the fourth round of the shootout, the excitement from the Hawks bench went crazy. And they should have, considering this was the second game of an eight-game road trip on back-to-back days. Niemi was magnificent in the net, and the Blackhawks won a tough road game.

But to someone who watched the Bulls work for years to get over the hill, this victory felt like more. Sunday the Blackhawks took the best shot the Red Wings had, against most of their best players, and won in a playoff atmosphere.

Of course the full story on this year’s Blackhawks, and whether or not they can get past Detroit in April, won’t be written for four more months. But Sunday’s game could be a turning point for the organization.

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