CHICAGO -- The snow never relented, swirling at times and blowing sideways at others.
It accumulated on the rink inside Soldier Field during the Chicago Blackhawks' 5-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the final game of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, creating quite a challenge for both teams -- as well for as the hard-working snow-removal crews.
The conditions begged for a simpler style of hockey and the Blackhawks played that way to near perfection. They even credited their back-to-basics strategy for some of the prettiest goals you'll ever see.
"I thought we handled the conditions real well," said forward Patrick Kane, who dished a perfect feed to Kris Versteeg to make it 3-0 late in the second period. "We tried to play a simple game, as simple as possible to be honest with you. We tried to get pucks to the net and crash the net and create goals that way. There were some pretty goals along the way, but other than that I thought we did a really good job of keeping it simple."
By doing so, they made a tough situation sizzle with three high-skill goals in the first 40 minutes. After Pittsburgh cut it to 3-1 early in the third, the defending Stanley Cup champions put two more goals on the board, by Bryan Bickell and captain Jonathan Toews, by combining easy plays with elite skill.
"The conditions were the same for both teams, and they're a fast team too," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "It wouldn't have mattered if we played this game inside or outside, or if there was snow or no snow. They were better and more prepared to play, whatever the conditions were. And the first half of the game was a large indication of that."
The Blackhawks dominated early in the faceoff circle and controlled the puck for long stretches while the wind whipped snowflakes around like the inside of a shaken snow globe. The dominance finally paid off at 15:35 of the first period on Patrick Sharp's 29th goal, set up by Toews, that made it 1-0. Sharp celebrated like he'd just scored in overtime to win it, thinking the conditions might make that the game's lone score.
Instead, it was just the start of an impressive offensive night for the players in the black uniforms.
"I honestly thought that was the game, 1-0," Sharp said. "The way the conditions were out there, it was tough to get the puck anywhere near the net, and those guys defend well. [The] first period was pretty tough. It was tough to see, tough to really handle the puck ... it felt like an outdoor game. There was no real system or structure to our game. We were hoisting the puck around and slapping it around and having fun doing it."
As the snow let up to start the second period, the ice got progressively better. So did the home team.
Toews' first of the game and 20th of the season made it 2-0 at 10:47 of the second before Versteeg's tap-in off Kane's feed for the 100th of his career nearly six minutes later gave the defending Stanley Cup champs a three-goal margin.
The high-skill level began with Sharp's goal.
After Toews slid him a pass from behind the net, the Blackhawks' leading goal-scorer snapped a wrister from the bottom of the right circle past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The puck just missed the left arm of Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby and banged into the net off the far post for the game's first goal.
"I think we kept it really simple early on in the game and just threw pucks on the ice and chased after them," Toews said. "Nice shot by [Sharp] to get it started and we weren't sure how many more goals we were going to get after that ... it was kind of come and go as far as the ice conditions."
Toews was the next to score, and his was a beauty.
Midway through the second, he collected the puck in the neutral zone and headed up ice with the wind and snow blowing directly into his face. After crossing the Pittsburgh blue line, Toews used an inside-out move on defenseman Brooks Orpik in the slot that left people shaking their heads in disbelief. He then tucked the puck underneath Fleury's left pad with a backhander from point-blank range. The puck trickled across the goal line just before the whistle blew to stop the action.
Versteeg and Kane helped dig that pit a little deeper with 3:17 left in the second. Kane led a 3-on-1 rush into the Pittsburgh zone, stickhandled to the left circle around defenseman Rob Scuderi's stick, and flipped a perfect saucer pass to the tape of Versteeg's stick on the back side for an easy tap-in.
Versteeg got a chuckle out of describing his job on the play.
"Just drive the net and put your stick down and you know a guy like [Kane] is going to find you when he can," he said. "It was just a great pass."
It wasn't the last one of the night by a Blackhawks player.
After Pittsburgh got on the board early in the third, Bickell and Brandon Saad combined to re-establish a three-goal margin at 13:57. Another precision pass off the rush, this one by Saad from the right wing to Bickell in front, was the key to Bickell's ninth of the season.
Toews added his second of the game with 2:08 left to cap another impressive night by one of the NHL's most talented teams.
"You look at some of our goals, even [Sharp's] first goal was a shot, and [Toews'] individual move one-on-one was a special goal as well," coach Joel Quenneville said. "[Kane] had a couple of looks [off the rush], and it looked like he was shooting it and maybe put it over to [Versteeg], but in those type of conditions, player recognition and patience, and getting the puck moving ahead was sometimes challenging. But great finishes and great plays by some real special players."
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