The Western Conference beat the Eastern Conference, 6-5, at the United Center Saturday night in the annual NHL All-Star Game, delayed until the Memorial Day weekend from its usual mid-season slot because of the Winter Olympics.
Sorry. I’ve got my league events mixed up. Actually, it was Game #1 of the Stanley Cup final, and the Blackhawks outlasted the Philadelphia Flyers by the aforementioned count on a tie-breaking goal by Tomas Kopecky—amazingly, the only score in the third period after 40 minutes of mayhem that had to age coaching staffs on either side.
It was entertaining, and it was frenetic, but it was far from a perfect game, which is what Roy Halladay of the Phillies had the nerve to pitch simultaneously in Florida, a brazen attempt to steal the thunder and front pages in Philadelphia from those feisty Flyers.
The stakes were raised at the UC on this much-awaited evening, and so was the volume. The place was louder than Don Cherry’s sports jacket for the first Stanley Cup final contest ever within the new building and the first in Chicago since 1992 at the old building. Fans were treated to a montage of past Blackhawk teams that won the great silver chalice, but pictures cannot lie.
All the highlights on the giant screen were in black and white, heavy on the grain. Perhaps that added even more juice to Saturday night’s audience that was so jumpy. These people paid all this money for seats, then they rarely used them, standing for the Star Spangled Banner and throughout much of the ensuing, unscheduled fireworks display.
There wasn’t much orange to be seen, except in the suite occupied by Ed Snider, boss of the Flyers from the beginning. Referees Bill McCreary and Dan O’Halloran wore orange armbands, but of course, those are required haberdashery items, as stipulated by the league. Blackhawk supporters had issues with the officials apart from their wardrobes.
The home team drew all four penalties, prompting highly enthusiastic choral arrangement of boos. What’s worse, even though Dave Bolland used one on which to score shorthanded and make it 2-1 Chicago, the whistles seemed to preclude the Blackhawks developing any flow or rhythm, especially over the first two periods.
Still, just when it looked as though this opener would approach the zany 8-7 Game 5 victory registered by the Blackhawks in Montreal during the 1973 final, the Madhouse on Madison settled down ever so slightly and the fare ended up resembling a playoff game.
“That was huge,” noted goalie Antti Niemi, referring to the fact that he and the Blackhawks could escape with a triumph after all those breakdowns. Niemi oversaw so many turnovers he must have felt like he was running a bakery. He had his gaffes too, and twice he lost his headgear during the action. But he gave it the old Grant Fuhr. You score me six, and I’ll hold them to five.
“But next game,” Niemi cautioned about Monday night, “we have to play better so everybody can see how well we can play.”
At least Niemi worked a complete game. After Michael Leighton, his counterpart, surrendered his fifth—to Troy Brouwer, his second, arranged via some heavy lifting by Marian Hossa—the Philadelphia goalie appeared to peak toward the visitors’ bench. It reminded you of a starting pitcher who had run out of gas and looked to the bullpen, hoping to see people playing catch. Leighton and his coach, Peter Laviolette, were obviously on the same wavelength, because Brian Boucher had left the comfort of his backup perch and was stirring.
Leighton, such a nice fellow, wound up with a yield of five goals on 20 shots. But in his brief tour with the Blackhawks, during the 2003-04 season, he probably never saw so many people in the United Center. Saturday night’s attendance of 22,312 was a week’s worth in his day. The background was still red Saturday night, but primarily from fans wearing Blackhawk jerseys and moving around all the time. Leighton was accustomed to vacant chairs. Then again, so was Boucher, who toiled here a couple years after Leighton.
I’m not saying either of them suffered stage fright Saturday night. Let us just assume that when they played in Chicago they probably didn’t realize it was the third largest market in the league.
If you’re scoring at home, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien were each minus-3, a trifecta not likely to occur again, and another reason why the Flyers might rue a game that got away. Meanwhile, Kopecky smoothly occupied an active roster spot vacated by the injured Andrew Ladd. Brent Seabrook kept the puck in on the pattern that resulted in the winner at 8:25 of the third. Then Niemi kept the puck out for the rest of a game that Eddie Olczyk prophetically forecasted on NBC would feature a feast of scoring.
Two fastidious conference champions and, out of nowhere, Eddie O predicts boxcar numbers. Did he think both teams would be rusty? Would nerves be a factor? Bad ice on a warm evening? Olczyk claims he just had one of those hunches.
No wonder he cashes all those winning tickets at the racetrack.