CHICAGO – What a difference a week makes in the National Hockey League.
A week ago the Chicago Blackhawks were on top of the standings for the League, Western Conference and Central Division after beating rival Detroit at the United Center in a hard-fought, one-goal game. In fact, the win put them five points clear of the Red Wings, a seemingly comfortable cushion.
One week and four games later, that win remains the last time the Blackhawks most recent, a losing skid that now includes Detroit's remarkable, come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win on Sunday night at the Madhouse on Madison.
After getting to a loose puck to the right of the Chicago goal 3:08 into OT, Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk fired a wrist shot that banked into the net off Hawks defenseman Nick Leddy, who was protecting the crease, and into the net.
"It was a good screen, and I hop on the puck," Datsyuk said. "The goalie (Corey Crawford) just fall on the ice, and I just shoot and make sure I (don't) miss."
In a week's time, the Hawks missed a golden opportunity to keep some separation between themselves and the rest of the pack in the West – not to mention Detroit and St. Louis in the Central Division race. They're now tied with the Wings and Blues in points and dropped to fifth in the West.
"That race we've had, we might have been ahead of those teams but it wasn't like we were light years ahead of them," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "It's a one-, two-point swing here, everybody's in the mix. I see this battle going on all year and the conference is tightening up, as well. But we did give away a lot of ground here this week and it's up to us to regain where we're at."
They can thank not only Detroit's late-game escape act on Sunday for that, but also a pair of one-goal defeats to the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers last week plus a 4-0 loss to Colorado here on Friday. Chicago might also face the challenge of keeping pace with the Wings and Blues without the services of star forward Patrick Sharp.
Sharp left the game in the first period after making it 2-0 just 4:19 into the game with his 20th goal – which he scored just 44 seconds after Dave Bolland gave the Hawks a 1-0 lead on a power play, just their second man-advantage marker in the previous 24 attempts.
Quenneville didn't update Sharp's condition afterward, but initial reports didn't sound encouraging about what's being called an upper-body injury. Sharp will be reassessed on Monday and the Hawks might know more about his health prognosis at that point.
As for the Red Wings (26-14-1), this was a big victory for a number of reasons. It was backup goalie Ty Conklin's first win since Oct. 8 – the second game of the season – and should give both he and Detroit coach Mike Babcock more confidence in his abilities.
Conklin had made just five appearances after that first start and lost four of them prior to winning this one. He also stopped a big penalty-shot by rookie Jimmy Hayes in the third period that would've given Chicago a two-goal lead.
"It was great for Conks, because for him it's been a long time coming," said Babcock, who intimated he would ideally like to play Conklin in 20 games this season. "It gives him confidence and it gives me confidence to use him and it gives our team confidence. This is a big step for Conks here, personally, for himself."
It didn't start out that way. After giving up the two quick goals, Conklin looked unlikely to go the full 60 minutes. Instead, he righted himself and made 29 saves to keep the Wings in a game they were out-skated and outplayed for long stretches.
The penalty-shot save – made with his right pad 7:53 into the third – was a turning point in the game. It kept the Hawks within striking distance at 2-1 and kept the door open for Cleary's game-tying goal about seven minutes later. However, the call for a penalty shot itself was a bit controversial. After a scramble in the crease, with Conklin sprawled, the puck hit the right post and caromed off Conklin's pad back toward the goal line.
Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom – playing for the first time in five games because of a groin injury – stuck his hand out and illegally touched the puck with a closed hand. He also appeared to pull the puck back after crossing the goal line, but it was ruled "no goal" on the ice and could not be reviewed.
Instead, Hayes was chosen by Quenneville to take the penalty shot and Conklin came up big to stop him.
Detroit's play got a lift from it and that led to Cleary's goal – which was also a little controversial. The Hawks thought a crosschecking penalty should've been called on a hit against defenseman Nick Leddy before Cleary jammed the puck through traffic and watched it just barely slide over the goal line.
Regardless, it counted and the Wings tipped the momentum towards the away team.
"I thought the turning point was the penalty shot," Cleary said. "It gave us a chance to stay in the game and Conks settled in real well and played a (heck) of a game for us."
Valtteri Filppula scored Detroit's other goal with 6:21 left in the first to cut it to 2-1 – which is how it stayed until late in the third and OT – when Datsyuk came up big for the Wings again to win it.