Caught in a late season drought last week, many fans and media members called for a Blackhawks’ goaltender to steal a game, saying such a performance could give the team confidence and catapult the ‘Hawks to a winning streak. Well, consider Sunday’s game in Columbus versus the Blue Jackets stolen – not because the ‘Hawks were outplayed by their Central Division foes, but because Jackets’ rookie netminder Steve Mason was cooking to steal the game for himself.
For the most part, the ‘Hawks deserved to win this seesaw defensive battle. Though either team had periods of sustained pressure during the first two periods, the ‘Hawks had the better of the scoring chances. At one point during the second, Colin Fraser found himself wide open in the slot with time to spare. Fraser chose a glove side wrist shot, but Mason beat him beautifully.
The third belonged to the ‘Hawks; once again, though, Mason stonewalled each and every chance. One particular opportunity saw Dustin Byfuglien with an open net and a pass on his tape. Big Buff flubbed the pass and got no shot. There were other opportunities that got on net, too. Martin Havlat and Jonathan Toews were beat by Mason, and a handful of good chances from defensemen were either blocked or turned aside by the big goaltender.
Not to be outdone, Nikolai Khabibulin made a few big saves on the other end, totaling 20 by the evening’s end. One saw Khabibulin slide to his left to delete a goal off a cross-ice pass on a Columbus odd man rush. St. Nik also made a couple important saves in the game’s last few minutes to give the ‘Hawks an opportunity for two points in a tight Western Conference playoff race.
Overtime was all ‘Hawks, with the ‘Hawk d-men pushing the pace. A couple minutes in, Kris Versteeg found himself standing on the doorstep with time. He deked Mason, but was unable to get off a shot. Finally, not a minute later, Andrew Ladd broke up a Blue Jackets’ zone entry and spotted Versteeg breaking up ice past the pinching Columbus defenders. A spot pass sent Versteeg in a lone, and his shot on the other end didn’t miss. It hit the stick of Mason and bounced past the netminder, securing two points for the ‘Hawks and leaving the scrapping Jackets with only one.
And, just like that, with four games remaining on the season, the ‘Hawks are an impressive 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, and they have a (relatively) commanding three-point lead over both Calgary and Vancouver. As it stands, Calgary has one game in-hand over the Canucks, who have gone a human 5-4-1 during their last 10, including last night’s loss to the lowly Avalanche. Calgary is only 4-6 during the same span. The Flames host the Kings this evening, and the two teams square off in Vancouver tomorrow night.
Columbus is in sixth, seven points behind the Blackhawks.
Aaron Johnson was again at wing for the fourth line. Rumors have Troy Brouwer back in the line-up on Tuesday in Nashville, and there has been no Patrick Sharp update, though I’m doubtful we’ll see him before the playoffs begin. It also looks as though the ‘Hawks will not ask a Rockford forward to contribute in the season’s last week, and, as such, will rely on Ben Eager to play a top-nine role.
Next, though the Central Division has gotten a decent amount of attention late this season, the scary part is that St. Louis and Columbus are both teams on the rise. The Blue Jackets will reintroduce early season rookie of the year front runner Derick Brassard next season, and they’ll also likely make The Hockey News’ top NHL prospect, Nikita Filitov, a full time NHLer. The Blues are too stocked to even speak of at this point. And, that’s not to mention perennial challengers Detroit and Nashville. The days of the lowly Central Division are certainly behind us.
Finally, if you didn’t see Saturday’s Boston-New York match-up or you’re not familiar with the Sean Avery-Bruins ongoing feud, just take it from me: you want these two to face-off in the first round of the playoffs. Currently, Boston is the number one seed, and the Rangers are holding onto the eighth seed over the feel-good Florida Panthers.