To say the Blackhawks were relieved is an understatement. Not only did they survive a scruffy opener to the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 2-1 victory on Bryan Bickell’s goal 16:35 into overtime at the United Center Tuesday night.
They don’t have to look at the Minnesota Wild until Game 2 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Or run into the Minnesota Wild. Or be bumped by the Minnesota Wild. Or worry that the Minnesota Wild will stay for dinner.
Not only was this game too close for comfort. So was this opponent. The Wild scored early and softly on Corey Crawford, then did everything possible and legal to protect goalie Josh Harding, a courageous individual pressed into a rare start.
With ironman Niklas Backstrom scratched after incurring an injury during the warmup, and Jim Cornelison decked out in a tuxedo to stir a 215th consecutive sellout crowd of 21,428 with the Star-Spangled Banner, it all just seemed so right for the Blackhawks.
Except they were barely able to move. The Wild checked feverishly, chipped pucks, clogged entire zones and shooting lanes. A toilet overflowed in the men’s restroom behind the press box, and I hereby name the Minnesota Wild as persons of interest in that jam too.
“They are tough to play,” decided Bickell, who finished a pattern begun by Johnny Oduya and perpetuated by Viktor Stalberg. The goal occurred moments after Crawford stoned Zach Parise with a blocker save, one of several the Blackhawks netminder authored as restitution for allowing Cal Clutterbuck’s shot to escape him in the game’s fifth minute.
“I just lost it,” said Crawford, who did not, however, lose his composure. Mind you, the Wild didn’t exactly attack in ominous waves, but such was the motif of this entire contest. Nothing attractive about it, save for Danica Patrick’s intermission appearance. The Blackhawks like to throw the kitchen sink at the visitors’ net; on this night, with the Wild sticking to them like lint, it was more plastic forks and knives.
Marian Hossa tied the match on an early second period power play ably arranged by Patrick Kane. However, as time passed and the Wild added to its booty of blocked shots (21 total), Harding found a rhythm you wouldn’t expect of a fellow who registered his only victory on the second night of the season, and had gotten pulled after yielding two goals in seven minutes to the Blackhawks ten days later.
“Phenomenal,” intoned Coach Mike Yeo, who has leaned on Backstrom while Harding fights multiple sclerosis. Harding started only five games all season, does his due diligence to combat his illness, yet refrains from dwelling on it. Harding says he’s a hockey player who happens to have multiple sclerosis. If you were a teammate, wouldn’t you bust it to help him win a playoff game?
The Wild fell, then went home for a couple days. The Blackhawks exhaled, confident they wouldn’t be followed around town again by these clingy guests until Friday night.