ANAHEIM—It’s like Scotty Bowman was saying recently. Rivalries don’t grow on trees, but it doesn’t hurt to plant some seeds.
You just never know what might happen, although you should feel free to circle a date on your hockey calendar: March 29. The Anaheim Ducks will visit the Blackhawks in the United Center for the last time this season, or at least this irregular regular season, and there seems to be something percolating between these two runaway freight trains.
Certainly, if the Ducks don’t have the Blackhawks’ number, they have the Blackhawks’ attention. In February, Anaheim came from behind in Chicago and won via a shootout. Wednesday night at the lively Honda Center, the Ducks scored twice within 64 seconds of the third period, then added an empty-net goal to prevail 4-2 before 17,610—a franchise record.
And the Ducks have been around awhile, long enough to earn a Stanley Cup. But on a midweek evening in March, it was standing room only. Who says these fans in Southern California don’t stand for anything except “The Star-Spangled Banner?” There was more than a smattering of red jerseys in the building, but it was the first game on this tour that could not have passed for a Blackhawks home game. The rub is, it was almost a Blackhawks road victory.
“Five minutes from a perfect trip,” sighed Coach Joel Quenneville, in a rare consolation speech. He was missing Marian Hossa, and the Ducks were minus the suspended Corey Perry, but this pair of juggernauts maintained a pace befitting their exemplary records. Each franchise has lost only three games of the 60-minute variety, and it’s getting late. The Blackhawks have only 18 more starts, just seven of them away from the United Center.
“Frustrating tonight,” said Jonathan Toews, noting that for just a moment, the Blackhawks thought they had a 3-1 lead. But Brandon Bollig’s goal was disallowed—too much kick to it—and then the Ducks staged repeated raids on Corey Crawford, who yielded a tying score to Bobby Ryan at 14:33 of the third period and the winner to ageless Teemu Selanne at 15:37.
As ever, Toews was an irresistible force. After Peter Holland stung the Blackhawks with an early goal, Toews took it upon himself to create a tie. With Bollig sitting out for interference, Toews blocked a shot inside his blue line, took off with the puck, cut across to his left and beat Jonas Hiller. Brilliant stuff. An unassisted shorthander with a few of the rich and famous Ducks on the power play.
Then in the second, Toews had to be mugged to be stopped. Exit Sheldon Souray for holding at 10:29. At 11:54, Nick Leddy fired and bagged himself a 22nd birthday present.
Given how “important”—Coach Q’s apt description—Wednesday night’s game was, celebrations surrounding Leddy were muted. He was notified that his birthday coincided with the great Bobby Orr, but otherwise, the Blackhawks tended to business.
Leddy says he would like to build a dream house on a lake back home. Minneapolis-St. Paul advertises itself as a land of 10,000 lakes, and after he autographs his next contract, he might be able to appropriate a body of water for himself. Lake Leddy?
The Ducks are coached by Bruce Boudreau, who played briefly with the Blackhawks. On Wednesday morning, the colorful Boudreau re-enacted the sequence when he was sent back to the bushes from Chicago. Boudreau gave it the full Bob Pulford. After being dismissed by the Washington Capitals last winter, Boudreau waited only hours before finding a new coaching gig here, replacing Randy Carlyle.
The executive doing the hiring and firing was Bob Murray, an outstanding defenseman who played his entire career (1,008 games) with the Blackhawks. He served as general manager in Chicago, and has now distinguished himself by assembling a formidable roster with the Ducks—two of whom, Perry and team captain Ryan Getzlaf, just agreed to hefty contract extensions.
The Blackhawks are 17 points ahead of the St. Louis Blues, who are much closer to last in the Central Division than first. Same story in the Pacific, where the Los Angeles Kings trail Anaheim by 12.
Already the talk is that Wednesday’s game—and next week’s rematch in Chicago—are a preview of the Western Conference Final come June. That offer, too good to refuse, the Blackhawks and Ducks would take right now.