Viktor Stalberg gets a little smile on his face and his eyes light up the next time the Chicago Blackhawks play the Columbus Blue Jackets, there is a good reason.
Stalberg has officially become a bane to Columbus after scoring a hat trick in Tuesday night's 5-2 Blackhawks victory at the United Center.
Chicago (25-13-5, 55 points) snapped a four-game winless skid.
Stalberg's big night also helped the Hawks keep pace in the Central Division with the St. Louis Blues -- who beat Montreal on the road Tuesday night. The speedy 25-year old Swedish forward scored once in the second period and twice in the third, capping his first career hat trick by hitting the empty net and prompting a pause as hats littered the ice.
"It was fun to get that," Stalberg said. "It was something I had a couple of chances before to get, and it hasn't happened, so great feeling obviously. A couple of guys made some nice plays out there for me."
Seven of Stalberg's12 goals this season have come in four games against the Blue Jackets (11-26-5), who dropped their second game in a row and third of four on a road trip that saw coach Scott Arniel fired on Monday and replaced by Todd Richards.
"I wish it was like that every night," Stalberg said of pestering the Blue Jackets. "Hopefully I can keep it going against some other teams. But playing them, it seems like I'm getting a lot of chances and the puck's finding me out there. It's just nice to get some goals and keep rolling."
The puck found Stalberg in the low slot for a tap-in late in the second off a nice feed by Patrick Kane for his first goal to make it 2-1 Hawks heading into the second intermission. He scored his second by scooping a rebound in traffic near the crease and roofing a wrister over the shoulder of Columbus goalie Curtis Sanford (20 saves).
That made it 3-1 and was followed 27 seconds later by rookie Ben Smith's second goal of the season – after being recalled from the minors on Monday – to make it 4-1.
Antoine Vermette cut it to 4-2 for the Blue Jackets at 8:32 of the third, but Stalberg capped the night's scoring by winning a race to the puck just behind the Columbus goal and sliding it into the vacated net with 1:40 left to play.
It was a welcome sight for the Hawks in the first game after putting star forward Patrick Sharp on injured reserve with an upper body injury that could keep him out up to four weeks. Kane and Chicago captain Jonathan Toews both picked up assists on Stalberg's first goal -- a tally that seemed to spark all the forward lines but especially the one centered by Toews.
"As a line, we were getting chances and (Stalberg) was the one telling us, 'Let's stay with it, let's keep going, we're going to get one,' and sure enough he popped that first one," Toews said. "As a line, that was a big goal for the three of us. We'd been working hard for it and finally Stally was in the right spot and Kaner made a great pass. Then Vik didn't stop with just one. He kept going."
Toews, however, had to take almost a nine-minute break after getting hit in the head by a deflected slap shot 1:35 into the game. It came off the stick of teammate Duncan Keith, whose hard shot from the slot was partially blocked by Ryan Johansen and ricocheted off Toews' helmet just above the visor before striking the right post.
Toews returned at the 10:02 mark of the first to help the Hawks kill off the first of three Blue Jackets power plays in that period. After the game, the Hawks captain spoke with reporters while sporting two lines of stitches and a big welt on his forehead. He already had a week-old row of stitches in his lower lip after catching a stick blade during a loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
"I wasn't aware exactly how that played out, but what a crazy shot that ended up being," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said of the puck that hit Toews. "Hit their guy, hit (Toews) in the head, hit the post and it was a pounder. (Toews) looks like 'Old-Time Hockey' right now. (A goal) would have been a beauty, soccer (style)."
Dave Bolland did find the back of the net for Chicago early in the second for a 1-0 lead – which was his career-high third shorthanded of the season (10th overall).
Bolland also assisted on Stalberg's empty-net goal.
Corey Crawford started and made 32 saves for his 16th win.
R.J. Umberger scored the other goal for the Blue Jackets, who couldn't capitalize on five power plays, including one early in the second that resulted instead in Bolland's goal, a tally set up by Marian Hossa's backhand pass off the rush.
The Hawks went 0 for 4 on their own man-advantage situations and needed their penalty kill to be sharp after taking a pair of instigator infractions in the first two periods for starting fights with Jared Boll.
Boll delivered hits to Andrew Brunette in the first and Niklas Hjalmarsson in the second that Chicago didn't like, and both Steve Montador and Jamal Mayers wound up scrapping with him. Mayers was given an instigator just 3:37 into the second, after Montador had already been assessed an instigator minor plus an unsportsmanlike conduct and 10-minute misconduct at 13:45 of the first for instigating while wearing a face shield.
Chicago killed off all four minutes of that Columbus power play and prepared to do the same after the Mayers fight. Not only did they kill it off, but they also grabbed a 1-0 lead on Bolland's tally. Umberger tied it at 7:54, but Stalberg scored his first late in the period to give the Hawks a lead they'd never relinquish.
"It's been a tough road trip … a tough couple days for us," Richards said. "I thought we hung in there. We're a tired group. We're headed home and hopefully (will get) a good day of rest (on Wednesday) and then a good practice on Thursday and get ready for the weekend."