|Three goals from Kris Versteeg and Patrick Kane (2) early in the third period broke a 1-1 tie in a contentious divisional matchup with the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night. (Bill Smith/Chicago Blackhawks)
There was a pause in the action with 14:27 left on the clock on Wednesday night at the United Center. As if on cue, many thousands in the gathering of 21,514 stood to applaud, not at the whistle that prompted a stoppage in play, but because of the preceding five or so minutes just produced and directed by the Blackhawks.
Granted, visuals might have contributed to this spontaneous combustion. The giant video machine flashed mug shots of Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg. They were happy, a stark contrast to the visage of Ken Hitchcock, the much-admired opposing coach, who looked like he had just missed a plane.
They say that the first game back at home after a long road trip is an accident waiting to happen, especially when your No. 1 goalie cannot participate because of his own accident. But if you play with the same elan exhibited on a long road trip, anything is possible, including a three-goal outburst to separate two enemies on what TV folks dub "Rivalry Night."
“There are still things we don’t know about each other,” Kane said, after the Blackhawks put away the St. Louis Blues 4-1. He, Versteeg and center Brad Richards could have danced all night, again. Versteeg broke a 1-1 tie early in the third period, then Kane tallied twice, assisted on both by Versteeg and on the latter by Richards. By 5:19, what had been anybody’s game turned into display of arts and crafts.
“We like to keep it simple,” Kane went on, almost apologizing for the creativity that occasionally left the Blues groping. Darryl Sutter, head coach of the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles, last week opined that the Blackhawks are presently the best team in the National Hockey League. Hitchcock, if you recall, praised Chicago’s resolve after his Blues suffered an opening-round postseason playoff comeuppance in the spring. Now he’s got to deal with the same old nemesis, except that Versteeg is healthy at last and Richards is fitting in with his new squad quite nicely.
Wednesday night’s match was predictably edgy, if not playoff edgy. Neither side was bashful about exchanging sneers, but the parsimonious Blackhawk penalty kill (6-for-6) remained splendid to the end, which featured Daniel Carcillo and Brent Seabrook exiting the premises early. They had no choice, but as Eddie Olczyk noted, they also got dibs on the hot water.
The Blues dinged two posts and accepted three power plays during a grumpy first period, but it was the Blackhawks who registered the only goal on good old-fashioned hard work. Brandon Saad confronted Ian Cole at the home blue line, badgered him, then finally absconded with the puck. This set up a 2-on-1 arrangement that Marcus Kruger finished off nicely.
Cole, however, brought the Blues a tie in the second period with Chicago penalty pending. St. Louis had six skaters on when Antti Raanta yielded his first goal in six weeks. It would turn out to be the only goal he’s yielded in six weeks. Crawford made 14 straight starts, but here came Raanta, ice cold, and for all the offensive histrionics before him, he earned the championship belt from his mates.
After 22 seasons with the New Jersey Devils, Martin Brodeur showed up on the St. Louis bench Wednesday night, signed to a one-year deal. With Brian Elliott ailing, General Manager Doug Armstrong reached out to a future Hall of Famer.
Jake Allen, who starred for the Chicago Wolves in the American Hockey League, was Wednesday night’s victim in net for the Blues. The Blackhawks appear rather deep there, and beyond. Kane said that the guys are just getting to know each other? Is that a warning?