As the Blackhawks prepare for an early Easter Sunday with an old rival in Detroit, they might want to check their rearview mirror for a potential new nemesis. Specifically, that would be one of those mirrors warning about how objects are closer than they appear.
Three games is a small sample size, but not as tiny as one point – and that’s all the Blackhawks can bank after their brief and theatrical regular-season series against the Anaheim Ducks concluded with a 2-1 defeat at the United Center Friday night. A few of the names changed, if not the trend of recent events.
This time, it was Sheldon Souray scoring with 2:08 remaining in the third period to snap a tie, along with goalie Ray Emery’s heretofore perfect record. Assisting was Ryan Getzlaf, the same superstar who was so sick he almost did not play March 20 in Anaheim—a fray he decided to take over with a few minutes remaining. The Ducks surged to win, 4-2, not unlike how they rallied to achieve a 3-2 shootout conquest here in mid-February.
So, as April nears, the Blackhawks lead in the Western Conference is just three points over the supremely talented Ducks, who came to Chicago with a four-game losing streak. How that happened is a mystery. When the Blackhawks lose two in a row, fans here want to launch a federal investigation. The Ducks have no apparent weakness, and they drop four in a row while producing only five goals?
“Maybe Chicago brings out the best in us,” theorized Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, who added that his Ducks do not seem quite as adept against other elite foes. Before the season’s largest United Center crowd, 22,105, Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller yielded just a Patrick Kane power-play bullet—only a few feet wide of the right dot from which Corey Perry beat Emery earlier. But Hiller had plenty in front of him. The Ducks have size, smarts and speed. Often this combination, along with sound positional play, can also beget a bit of luck. Alas, Souray’s blast was redirected by the stick of Niklas Hjalmarsson, who wears red.
“Frustrating, disappointing,” said Hjalmarsson. But he wasted no time responding to a question about whether he would like to see the Ducks again, perhaps in early June. “Definitely,” he said. “These games are fun.”
They certainly have been fun to watch, and logic would have the Blackhawks and Ducks meeting in a Western Conference final. Except, of course, logic seldom qualifies for the playoffs. Last year, a No. 8 seed (Los Angeles Kings) beat a No. 6 (New Jersey Devils) for the Stanley Cup after the Kings beat a No. 6 (Phoenix Coyotes) to take the Western Conference. When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they were a No. 2 seed against the No. 7 Philadelphia Flyers from the Eastern Conference.
The Blackhawks are welcome to wonder why they played better on a recent four-game road trip over four time zones than they did in the just concluded three-game homestand. The Kings, defending champions, came to the United Center on Monday, and it is just as well that coaches Joel Quenneville and Darryl Sutter are already gray on top. The Kings rallied to win a 60-minute foot race, 5-4, then flew to the White House to celebrate their title with President Barack Obama.
While that unfolded Tuesday, the Blackhawks opted for a prevent mode, as if to restore Coach Q’s hair color, and beat the Calgary Flames, 2-0. It was the antithesis of both Monday night’s fare and an outing in Alberta on Feb. 2, when Emery was sensational in stopping 45 shots. On Tuesday night, in what would be Jarome Iginla’s last game with Calgary, the Flames were extinguished, 2-0, with Emery required to make only 16 saves.
Royalty from the National Basketball Association, visited the UC on Wednesday. Kane and Patrick Sharp sat courtside and posed for pictures with LeBron James, who exchanged pleasantries with Kane on social media during their respective streaks. The Bulls halted the Miami Heat’s binge at 27, after which Kane sounded as if he would like to recruit Kirk Hinrich for the Blackhawks. When you openly covet a player from co-tenant in the same building, but a different sport, is that tampering?
On Friday, it was back to hockey’s elite, and the Ducks frankly were the superior team. Boudreau cordially cited the absence of Sharp and Marian Hossa, but his vanquished counterpart, Coach Q, raised no such issues. He knows the Ducks are loaded.
Now, on Easter Sunday, for national television, the Blackhawks return to Hockeytown, where they won a 2-1 classic in early March. The Red Wings, who just whipped Anaheim twice, will be ready. They always are.