Coming off major knee surgery that cut short his 2012-13 season, Versteeg struggled to regain his top form last season in Chicago, including a rough showing during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. A full summer of conditioning helped him regain his speed and quickness, and his rejuvenated game is showing on the scoresheet.
He proved it to the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday at United Center, sparking a three-goal outburst early in the third period of the Blackhawks' 4-1 victory. Versteeg scored 59 seconds into the third, then set up two goals by right wing Patrick Kane.
"I was brutal [last season], especially down the last stretch [of the playoffs]," said Versteeg, who has eight goals and 13 assists in 21 games, including four goals and 10 assists in the past eight games. "I do look back at it as coming back from a really hard injury and I thought it was a success that way. I don't really look back on it anymore. It gets brought up quite a bit, but I just look from game to game. That's really all I can tell you."
On Wednesday, Versteeg, who played with the Blackhawks from 2007-10, and the scorching-hot second line helped Chicago (16-8-1) continue its season-long trend of dominating games in the third period. The Blackhawks have outscored opponents 29-12 in the third, outshooting them by a staggering 323-218 margin.
St. Louis (16-7-2) outshot Chicago 15-13 in the third, but was outscored 3-0. The Blackhawks' three goals in a span of 4:20 to start the third overwhelmed Blues goalie Jake Allen (29 saves), gave the Blackhawks their fourth straight win and rewarded Antti Raanta (40 saves) with a victory for a good showing in his first start replacing injured Corey Crawford.
"Can't let a team that skilled get those chances, but it was only a five-minute span, and they took advantage of it," Allen said. "I definitely have to learn from that. Can't let a team with that many offensive threats get their chances. Give it to them: They made the most of them, and we took our foot off the gas for a little bit. It's a lesson learned."
Versteeg (one goal, two assists), Kane (two goals) and center Brad Richards (assist) combined for six points against the Blues after racking up 30 points together in the previous seven games.
"It was a great third period for us," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "That line scored some big goals over [the recent road trip] and a couple big ones here tonight as well. I thought we played pretty well going into that third. [We] had some penalty issues tonight … [we] have to commend our penalty-killers and Antti [for killing] as well."
Chicago came into the game as the NHL's second-least penalized team, but took five penalties in the first two periods and eight overall. The Blackhawks' League-best penalty kill staved off all six power plays for the Blues.
"There was lots of big guys in front of the net [on Blues power plays], and our team just has warriors," said Raanta, who earned his first win since Oct. 21 in his first NHL action since Oct. 25. "They just push those guys away and take the rebounds all the time. They don't give anything to those guys. If I can make the first save, usually we survive that. It's a really huge thing for a goalie to have those kinds of guys in front of the net."
It's also a boon to have a player like fourth-line center Marcus Kruger out top on the first penalty-killing unit. Kruger was credited with one blocked shot and one takeaway. He also gave Chicago a 1-0 lead at 15:57 of the first on a goal, his fourth, scored off a 2-on-1 break
Up to that point, the Blues had earned the majority of quality scoring chances. St. Louis, which brought the NHL's third-ranked road power play into the game, got three of its power plays in the first. The Blues also had two even-strength shots hit the goal post in that period, and Raanta made a pad save at 11:33 to stop a slap shot by Alexander Steen off a shorthanded breakway.
Blues defenseman Ian Cole, who fired one of the two shots off the post, then tied it 1-1 at 12:38 of the second. He swatted in a nice feed by Patrik Berglund during a delayed penalty for his second goal, which set up the Chicago fireworks to start the third.
"The game is 1-1, you're in perfect position on the road, and we just gave it to them," Hitchcock said. "[We] made some checking mistakes. We just gave them the hockey game. Bottom line. We put ourselves at 1-1 in a great spot where you want to be on the road."
The Blues signed Brodeur to a one-year contract Tuesday; he will split time with Allen with Brian Elliott out because of a knee injury. Brodeur played the first 1,259 games of his career with the New Jersey Devils and is the all-time NHL wins leader (688).