It may well be remembered as the most entertaining game of this regular season, and the Blackhawks took two points, beating the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
This one featured enough speed and physicality to appease even the most hardened fan. While the game got off to a quick start, it wasn’t until Duncan Keith and Matt Cooke traded violent blows in the first that things reached the next level. On the Hawk power play, Cooke’s shoulder drove into Keith’s head while Keith stood still deep in his own zone after having retrieved a dump-in. Just a moment later, Cooke found how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot, as Keith did the same to him. Keith received an interference minor, and, as they say, it was on.
Only a minute later, during 4-on-4 play, Patrick Kane entered the Penguins’ zone with speed and found a trailing Brian Campbell. Campbell’s shot was stopped by Mark-Andre Fleury, but the rebound fell in Marian Hossa‘s lap. Hossa made a quick play and potted it from the door step.
It wasn’t until 90 seconds left in the game that the Penguins were able to even it up. Coming off a home team timeout, Evgeni Malkin got a clear look from the outside, and, just like the Hawks’ lone regulation goal, the rebound came right to Jordan Staal, who made no mistake tying it.
In between those strikes, speed and physical play ruled the day. In a twenty-minute time period between the last half of the second and the first half of the third, the Penguins created a large handful of chances, but Annti Niemi stood strong on each. His night included two Penguin posts and a beautiful side-to-side save late in the second on a Sergei Gonchar one-timer.
Niemi was fantastic, guaranteeing the Hawks a point in Pittsburgh a night after a rare home loss.
Yo, Listen to These Words!
— With the OT win, Niemi is now 5-1-1 with a save percentage just over .930 and a goals against average well under 2.0. Not bad at all. His effort Saturday night didn’t look much different from his last game in Vancouver on the circus trip.
— Tomas Kopecky was given the night off in favor of Jordan Hendry on the fourth line wing. As I’ve said before, Kopecky has a top-six skill set, but lacks top-six skill. It’s not the collection of skills the Hawks need on a fourth line that struggled leading up to Saturday’s game. All told, the line played a larger role in the victory, but it’s more likely due to Ben Eager‘s improved performance.
— The line-up continued to keep Hossa and Kane separated. This time around, Joel Quenneville played Toews with Hossa and Kris Versteeg; Sharp in between Kane and Ladd; Madden with Brouwer and Byfuglien; and Fraser, Eager and Hendry. Q used a few different combinations down the stretch, though, especially for defensive purposes.
— The Toews/Hossa/Versteeg combination is an intriguing one. The line was productive when Versteeg wasn’t stickhandling them into submission.
— Q showed the world why he has won 500 games as an NHL head coach. With the last change on the road and Malkin in a black sweater, he was masterful with his third period changes. Keith and Brent Seabrook were involved in most every face-off, and many times left immediately to save energy for a Malkin shift.
— Is Troy Brouwer playing with an injury?
— At this point, I’m beginning to think Cam Barker is like a fourth grader caught in third grade. He seems disinterested playing with and against fourth line grinders. Let’s hope that’s the explantion, anyway.
— It’s time Patrick Sharp did something. Playing center may not help that, though.
— Finally, I’ve made no bones about my distaste for a forward on the power play point. Sure, it works occasionally, but for every successful example, there are 50 examples of failure.
Allow me, then, to point out that the game became overly physical because of Patrick Sharp on the power play point.
On a Pittsburgh dump-in during the Hawk power play, Keith and Sharp headed back to retrieve the puck. As Keith got to the puck, rather than heading to the other side of the ice to provide Keith with an outlet option, Sharp attempted to slow the forechecker while standing within 10 feet of Keith. Seeing nowhere to move the puck with his partner within spitting range, Keith held on to it and absorbed the Cooke hit that changed the pace of the game.
And, all of this happened while power play wizards Barker and Campbell sat idle preparing to play with Madden, Byfuglien and Versteeg on the second leg of the man advantage.