By the time this opening series is closed, it will feel like a best-of-11 between the Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues instead of a best-of-seven.
They started unusually late and finished quite a bit later at the United Center Wednesday evening, but the impassioned tenor of a joust among rivals only escalated with yet another slice of thrilling theater.
“Can’t say enough… how competitive it’s been,” rasped Head Coach Joel Quenneville after the Blackhawks had last call a few minutes before midnight, beating the Blues, 4-3, on Patrick Kane’s bullet at 11:17 of sudden-death.
Decades ago, all home games at the Stadium began at 8:30. Puck drop for this one was actually 8:46, not that it matters: The Blackhawks could start at 2 in the morning and still draw a screaming-room only throng, because they are so royally entertaining.
Say this for the Blues, however: They have yielded momentum as Game 5 beckons in St. Louis Friday night, yet they did not exhibit any stage fright whatsoever in two defeats here. They played well in Game 3 but were smothered by Corey Crawford. Wednesday, having fallen behind on Andrew Shaw’s power-play(!) goal and Kane’s first, the Blues stunned 22,123 fans by scoring three in a row, the last being Vladimir Tarasenko’s second 12:26 into the third period.
It’s amazing, what [Joel Quenneville] does. He just has this sense and he makes changes that always seem to work. - Patrick Kane
The visitors could have had more, and perhaps taken a 3-1 series lead back home. But as Head Coach Ken Hitchcock intoned the other day, defending champions are just that because of an inner strength. He cited a “dumb play”—Brent Seabrook’s Game 2 hit on David Backes, who’s still sidelined—as having impacted both team’s rosters and stamina. Extracurricular stuff has since all but disappeared, freeing routines such as Bryan Bickell’s postseason histrionics.
He tied the fray, 3-3, and then Kane—born for center stage—beat Ryan Miller on the short side from the left circle, assisted by Ben Smith. Bedlam in the building, followed by analytics. Kane again began the evening on a line with Jonathan Toews, but completed it three hours hence with Smith and Patrick Sharp.
“It’s amazing, what Q does,” mused Kane. “He just has this sense and he makes changes that always seem to work.”
Hitchcock volunteered that it wasn’t a fair fight for Quenneville to put Toews and Kane on the same line, anyway.
According to some interesting numbers uncovered by Scott Powers of ESPNChicago.com, Toews and Kane were both on the ice in 5-on-5 situations for 678 minutes and 42 seconds during the 2009-10 season.
In 2010-11, their time together grew to 722 minutes, 47 seconds. But in 2011-12, the bonding fell to 99 minutes, 41 seconds. Last season, during a reduced schedule, Toews and Kane were linemates for 212 minutes, 53 seconds. Again, these numbers reflect only 5-on-5 togetherness, and not stints Toews and Kane logged during power plays.
But even when they are separated, they are special.
“Off the rush,” Hitchcock said of Kane, “most dangerous player in the league.”