The Chicago Blackhawks took the ice last night looking to extend their NHL record of consecutive games to start a season without a regulation loss. The opponent on national TV would be the Colorado Avalanche, playing their second game of a back to back after bowing to the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday 2-1.
Prior to the opening faceoff, the Hawks learned they would be without 3rd leading scorer, Marian Hossa, who took himself out of the lineup after a brief warm-up due to an upper body injury. That prompted head coach Joel Quenneville to juggle his forward lines, inserting tough guy Daniel Carcillo on the top line with captain Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad while keeping his other 3 units intact. The atmosphere inside United Center would not be dampened, as the national anthem blared over the loudspeakers serenating the crowd and teams as they lined up on their respective blue lines. And the insertion of Carcillo would pay huge dividends as the night wore on.
Colorado took the play to the home team over the first 20 minutes, pressuring the Chicago defense into some uncharacteristic turnovers. Ray Emery was making the start for Corey Crawford as the Hawks played their own end of a back to back. Ryan O’Reilly, in only his 3rd game of the season after finally ending his holdout, would figure predominately in this tilt, his lack of timing showing towards the end of the first on a misfired one-timer. Just shy of the 10 minute mark, with the Hawks on the power play, Brent Seabrook floated a shot towards the Colorado goal that Andrew Shaw knocked out of midair and behind Semyon Varlamov, to give the home team a 1-0 lead that would stand until the later stages of the stanza. John Mitchell, reborn since coming over in the off-season as a free agent from the New York Rangers, tallied his 7th of the season off a fortunate bounce in front of Emery. Mitchell really just had to guide the puck on his backhand into the gaping cage to tie the score.
The second period was absent from drama or intrigue, the two teams content to play a tug of war style with the Hawks slightly taking control of the play. Patrick Sharp was extremely active, firing 4 shots in the period and constantly threatening Varlamov. It wasn’t until the 13:17 mark the tie would be broken as Matt Duchene came barreling down the left wing and as he approached the goal line, wristed a bad angle shot that somehow squeezed through Emery and into the cage. It was the kind of goal the Hawks have been fortunate enough to avoid in this early season and had some, including this writer, thinking that it just might not be their night.
As the third began, I realized that I had tweeted during the 2nd intermission that the Hawks would win 4-2 and somehow my thoughts turned to all my failures in predicting and chance, whether it be in Atlantic City, scratch off lottery tickets, or fantasy sports. I thought for sure that this was the night where I would be writing about the end of the streak. But everything changed barely a minute into the third when Michal Rosival took a penalty for hooking with Matt Duchene bearing down on Emery and almost slipping one through his arm that took a fortunate bounce off the post.
Super captain Jonathan Toews seized a puck in the Chicago end and raced towards the Colorado goal in a two on two situation with Dave Bolland. As Bolland and Toews criss crossed at the Avalanche blue line and the captain accepted the drop pass, he had the presence of mind to note that it was O’Reilly playing defense. He dipped his shoulder and cut hard to the slot, moving gently past Varlamov and stuffing the puck in the far corner to tie the game and send the crowd into a frenzy. It was the kind of effort and hockey smarts that everyone in Chicago has come to expect out the serious and focused leader.
As the period wore on, the feeling was growing that overtime was looming and extra time plus a possible skills competition would be needed to decide this game. Marcus Kruger did not think that was acceptable, as he did unbelievable work on the forecheck deep in the Avalanche zone and fed Viktor Stalberg at the side of the cage. As Stalberg’s shot dug into Varlamov’s pads, Daniel Carcillo, positioned in the low slot took a swipe and poked the puck between the Colorado netminders legs into the net with only 50 seconds to play. The crowd went into absolute bedlam and the reaction on the Hawks bench was priceless. You could tell that this streak means more to them than they let on in the press.
As the final horn blew, the team surrounded Emery and celebrated their next step towards an improbable dream.
NOT ALL FUN & GAMES
Lost in the midst of the jubilation over the extension of the streak was the loss of some key BlackHawk players. All teams depend on that impossibly predicted health factor as such a crucial element to regular season and especially playoff success. With Hossa bowing out in warmups, the Hawks lost Andrew Shaw late in the second period after being elbowed in the face by Paul Stastny but more importantly, saw Patrick Sharp almost literally crawl off the ice midway through the 3rd with an apparent shoulder injury.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville offered a postgame injury update. Qyenneville said Hossa ”is close to playing” and might be ready Friday at Colorado. Quenneville said the team would know more about Shaw on Thursday, but Sharp could be out longer and ”may get some time.” As of this writing, early word is starting to filter out that Sharp will be out two-to-three weeks.
Up until this point, the Hawks have been extremely healthy and this is the first test of adversity in this shortened season. Losing Sharp hurts enormously on the offensive end and means that players such as Stalberg, Kruger, Carcillo and Bolland, who were all very good last night, will have to keep up their intensity for the Hawks to continue this magical run towards NHL immortality.