CHICAGO -- The stars of the Chicago Blackhawks didn't let a little snow stop them from putting on a show at Soldier Field.
Captain Jonathan Toews had a highlight-reel goal among his three points, Patrick Kane set up another picture-perfect goal and the Blackhawks defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 in their Coors Light 2014 NHL Stadium Series game Saturday night in front of 62,921 at the home of the NFL's Chicago Bears.
"We felt like we could find a way to score every time we got the puck," Toews said. "It honestly did feel like we were playing shinny hockey in the backyard. We were playing smart in our end like we normally would, but we were making plays and just throwing everything on net and hoping for the best."
The snow began falling a couple of hours before puck drop at the stadium a few hundred feet from the Lake Michigan shore and did not stop. It fell heavily early in the game and for a stretch during the second period.
Large quantities of snow were shoveled off the playing surface during stoppages of play, and long passes along the ice left trails in their wake, but the Blackhawks did not appear troubled by the conditions. Chicago asserted its dominance early in this contest and did not relent.
"It was a lot of fun," said forward Kris Versteeg, whose goal came off Kane's pretty pass and became the first player to score at United Center, Wrigley Field (in the 2009 NHL Winter Classic) and Soldier Field. "Handling the puck was a little bit difficult, but I think if you asked all of the guys I don't think they'd have wanted it any other way. This was just the whole aura of the stadium and the snow coming down and seeing two of the best teams and some of the best players in the entire world playing; it was just really exciting to be a part of."
Patrick Sharp gave the Blackhawks the lead at 15:35 of the opening period. Toews sent a pass from behind the net to Sharp in the right circle, and he snapped a shot into the top left corner of the net for his 29th goal of the season.
"It felt like a real outdoor game. There was no systems or structure to our game," Sharp said. "We were just kind of hoisting the puck around, slapping the puck around and having fun doing it. It was a fun experience and I'm glad I got to be part of it."
Toews made it 2-0 midway through the second period with possibly the prettiest goal scored in an NHL outdoor game. The Blackhawks' captain collected the puck at center ice and blew past Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik with a backhand-forehand deke before slipping a backhanded shot through goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's legs for his 20th goal.
Sharp leapt into Toews' arms after the first goal. There was a bit of a delayed reaction from everyone else on the second, but Toews knew his goal had crossed the line. After going to one knee for a fist pump, the guy known as "Captain Serious" jumped into his teammates' arms at the Blackhawks' bench.
"I've been trying to lose that for a while," Toews said of the nickname. "The celebration on the first goal, I already saw a pretty funny picture where I knew [Sharp] was going to jump into me and I think Nick Leddy got caught right in the middle. We were just excited to score goals."
Shortly after the Penguins' best shift of the first two periods, the Blackhawks scored a counter-punch goal to make it 3-0. Pittsburgh had an extended shift in the offensive zone, and seconds later was pushing again but got caught with too many players in deep. The Blackhawks collected the puck and went the other way on a 3-on-1 break. Kane carried it into the offensive zone and waited for Versteeg to reach the far post before feathering a pass to the blade of his stick for a lay-up at 16:43 of the second.
James Neal was credited with Pittsburgh's lone goal when Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook put the puck in his own net early in the third period, but a goal from Bryan Bickell and a second from Toews made the score line reflect the dominance the Blackhawks displayed.
"It wouldn't have mattered if we played this game inside or outside or if there was snow or no snow," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "They were better and more prepared to play, whatever the conditions were.
"Our team wasn't good enough. Our team wasn't at the level we needed to be, and they were. And you saw that pretty much right from the get-go in this game."
The victory pushed the Blackhawks two points in front of the St. Louis Blues in the race for first place in the Central Division, though the team that just acquired goaltender Ryan Miller and forward Steve Ott has three games in hand. Miller will make his debut for the Blues on Sunday on the road against the Phoenix Coyotes.
While the Blues face off in the desert, the Blackhawks can kick back and relax after a dominant performance.
"It will be nice to go home, relax and see the family, check in with my kids," said Sharp, who was one of 10 Blackhawks who just returned from Russia after participating in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. "I think they've got their drivers licenses by now, I haven't seen them in so long.
"There were some pretty special games in a short amount of time, but we're definitely excited about our final 20 games here. It is going to be a battle for position in the Western Conference. You see some of the moves teams are making. They're loading up, so we are excited to get back to normal, sleep in our own beds and play some hockey at the United Center."
Pittsburgh has lost back-to-back games since the NHL returned from the Olympic break and is 0-2-1 in its past three. Still, the Penguins are comfortably in front of the Metropolitan Division and tops in the Eastern Conference.
Missing several key players because of injury has been a theme for much of this season, but the Penguins looked like a team that was missing its top two defensemen and a first-line forward against the deep and talented Blackhawks.
"The setting coming out was amazing," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "Regardless of the puck being slow when we were passing it, it was an awesome setting but it always better when you win. I had much more fun in Buffalo winning [at the 2008 NHL Winter Classic] than losing in Pittsburgh [at the 2011 Winter Classic] and here. I thought everyone did a great job organizing this event. It looked good from everyone else's vantage point, but it is always more fun when you win."
|Patrick Sharp (29) ASST: Jonathan Toews (37), Nick Leddy (18)|
1 - 0 CHI
|Jonathan Toews (20) ASST: NONE|
2 - 0 CHI
|Kris Versteeg (10) ASST: Patrick Kane (37), Michal Handzus (8)|
3 - 0 CHI
|James Neal (22) ASST: NONE|
3 - 1 CHI
|Bryan Bickell (9) ASST: Brandon Saad (23), Michal Rozsival (6)|
4 - 1 CHI
|Jonathan Toews (21) ASST: Patrick Sharp (31)|
5 - 1 CHI
|Simon Despres Tripping against Marcus Kruger|
|Tanner Glass Boarding against Brandon Bollig|
|Johnny Oduya Holding against James Neal|
|Simon Despres Hi-sticking against Brandon Saad|
|Duncan Keith Delaying Game-Puck over glass|
|Chris Kunitz Roughing against Michal Rozsival|
|Johnny Oduya Interference against Sidney Crosby|
|Duncan Keith Hi-sticking against Brian Gibbons|
|Michal Rozsival Tripping against James Neal|
|Marcus Kruger Delaying Game-Puck over glass|