Chicago Blackhawks continue to believe their season is still alive.
It might be getting close to the life-support stage if they don't hit a hot streak soon, but the defending Stanley Cup champions are nothing if not resilient this season. Yes, the Blackhawks are locked in a battle with a handful of teams for one of the final spots in the Western Conference's Top 8 position.
Yes, they are still struggling with consistency – which has been a season-long tussle to this point. The bright side is that with those gut-wrenching valleys come hope-inspiring peaks – which is exactly what they earned on Sunday afternoon in front of 22,195 at the United Center.
After outlasting the 2009 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in a nationally-televised game decided by a shootout, the Hawks are still clinging to hope like it's the last piece of driftwood for miles around.
"We haven't given up all year, we haven't given up on this team since I've been here and I don't think it's going to start now," said Hawks forward Patrick Sharp, who potted his 31st goal of the season and third in the past two games. "We feel like we're a playoff team. We want to be there. It's just a matter of earning it."
Thanks to a nagging trend of struggling to close out games strong, they had to earn this one in a shootout – after Pittsburgh tied it 2-2 with just 3:18 left in the third period on Brett Sterling's third goal of the season. Sterling scooped a loose rebound near the blue paint and potted it following a shot by Tyler Kennedy from the right circle that induced groans throughout the building.
Lucky for the Hawks, neither team could score in an exciting overtime that at one point featured some 3-on-3 skating because of penalties assessed late in regulation. That led to the shootout, where Hawks star Patrick Kane scored the lone goal and Chicago rookie goalie Corey Crawford stopped all three Pittsburgh attempts.
"Especially when you give up a goal with three minutes and change left in the third period, and you kind of give away that point, it was nice to get it back [in the shootout] for sure," said Kane, who beat Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a deke and a wrist shot. "I just tried to come down the middle and pull him to the one side and bring it back – [I'm] happy it worked obviously. Every game is important now.”
Crawford's final save of the shootout came against Kennedy, who led the Penguins (36-19-5) with five shots and picked up an assist on the goal that sent it to OT.
"I don't really care who it was who shot last," said Crawford, who showed a rare emotional outburst after the final horn sounded. "I was just so excited after it was done and we won."
Both teams failed to capitalize on great scoring chances in overtime. Kennedy lifted a shot over the goal just 1:36 into the extra session with a lot of open net. Not long after, Chicago's Duncan Keith couldn’t handle a great feed alone in the left circle to nix a golden opportunity.
Players from both teams also paid a physical price – with Penguins center Jordan Staal catching a puck in the neck/face area in overtime after a blast from the blue line by a teammate. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said initial indications are that Staal wasn't seriously hurt.
"[Staal] gave me the thumbs up when I came into the room," Bylsma said. "I don't know what that means, but I'm assuming that means he's OK."
The Penguins' playoff chase is also fine, despite being without injured star Sidney Crosby (concussion) and center Evgeni Malkin (knee) – who will miss the rest of the season. Pittsburgh started the day fourth in the Eastern Conference with 76 points and second to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Atlantic Division.
Picking up a point is good, but the Penguins wanted one more pretty bad.
"I think most games this time of year are hotly contested," said forward Craig Adams, who finished with a minus-2 rating. "It's that time of year and you’'e gonna see desperate hockey. One point is better than none, but we certainly would have liked to get that extra one."
Pittsburgh also got a strong performance from Matt Cooke, who returned from a suspension and scored the Penguins' other goal shorthanded at 13:52 of the second to tie it 1-1. He capped off a 2-on-1 rush by redirecting a feed from Max Talbot past Crawford.
Bryan Bickell then put the Hawks back on top 2-1 just 1:09 into the third by placing a long wrist shot from the boards outside the left circle over Fleury's trapper.
It looked like it might stand up as the game-winner until Sterling's marker knotted it again -- and likely caused some anxiety for Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville, who is recovering from a gastrointestinal ulcer at his home in the Chicago suburbs.
"He was probably cussing at the refs or something," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews joked about Quenneville. "That's a goal that we know he wouldn't be happy about, so we're not letting ourselves off the hook just because he wasn't there. We're definitely getting on each other."
Quenneville was hospitalized on Wednesday and has missed three games – with assistant Mike Haviland acting as the team's head coach. There's no official word as to when Quenneville will return, and the Hawks play a quick turnaround game on the road Monday afternoon against the St. Louis Blues.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks continue to watch for scores from other games around the League -- such as Detroit's shootout win against the Minnesota Wild earlier in the day. The Wild is just one of the teams directly ahead of Chicago in the standings, so that came as good news despite the Hawks' rivalry with the Red Wings.
"It's never fun cheering for Detroit, but I guess it's that time of year when you're looking at the scoreboard and the standings," Sharp said. "That helps a little, but come this time [on Monday] if we don't play well in St. Louis, it's not going to mean much."