So many miles. So many minutes. So little to differentiate between the Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks.
Is it any wonder why they are as even now as they were when they started this Western Conference Final less than a week ago? Or that they have both won once and lost once on each other’s rink? Or that, before this stirring tournament-palooza is complete, it will feel more like a best-of-11 than a best-of-seven?
What seems evident this postseason is that you do not want to take the Blackhawks into bonus hockey territory. The Kenyans are supposed to be kings of the marathon, but Chicago’s boys of winter are closing in. Saturday night, they registered yet another multiple overtime victory, beating the Ducks 5-4 on Antoine Vermette’s goal at 5:37 of the fifth period.
“Our guys find ways,” decided Coach Joel Quenneville, who sat Vermette for Game 3 on Thursday night in quest of “fresh legs.” An elegant veteran, Vermette expressed some frustration in English and French, but otherwise maintained professional decorum. Then, for Game 4, he returned to the lineup and displayed rather fresh legs to conclude an insanely entertaining affair before 22,404, one of the largest, loudest crowds in United Center history. Vermette’s first attempt became the 34th blocked shot by Anaheim, but he fetched the carom and beat Frederik Andersen from the goalie’s right.
What’s nice about playoff overtimes is that participating franchises are not rewarded a point in the standings even for losing, so the tempo tends to lean toward breakneck. Saturday night, save for a few lulls in the action, this not-so-sudden death did not disappoint. However, whether it could dislodge the third period for outright bizarro world at the Madhouse on Madison is debatable. That chapter in this novel began 1-1 and wound up 4-4. Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook scored to lift the Blackhawks to a 3-1 advantage, after which the Ducks gathered three goals within 37 seconds. It is a chore to do three of anything within 37 seconds, and the stunning attack felt like a virtual ending to the Blackhawks’ season until Patrick Kane’s power-play tally at 12:39.
In the first overtime, Corey Crawford almost took the puck with his pads into the net at one end. At the other end, Andrew Shaw, who was hooked by Sami Vatanen, banged a puck off the crossbar during the ensuing power play. The Ducks had the first nine shots of the extra session, but that was before Andersen stopped Patrick Sharp on a breakaway. He was so alone, it brought back memories of those rapid tie-breaking shootouts during the regular season. But Saturday night was all May, an ode to the most enticing playoffs in professional sports.
Brandon Saad opened the festivities with an unassisted shorthander in the first period, his journey simplified somewhat when Anaheim’s Francois Beauchemin tangled with Chris Rooney, a referee. Emerson Etem tied it late in the second, and then the Ducks and Blackhawks decided to make some memories. Same old story lately in Chicago. We dream all winter of a warm day, then when we get one, we can’t wait to rush inside to watch the Blackhawks.
Toews untied the match by waiting out Andersen and firing over him at 2:38. Then, after the Ducks netminder was tested from in close by Saad, the puck found Seabrook, who uncorked a bullet that enlivened fans just as they sensed the Blackhawks had relinquished momentum to the Ducks, masters of the third period this postseason. (In 12 previous playoff games, Anaheim had 18 goals to 3 for the enemies.) The crowd went wild, and then the crowd went into shock.
Ryan Kesler, taking a break from an evening of close encounters with Toews, bagged a rebound, and it was 3-2. Then Matt Beleskey stole the puck, used Kimmo Timonen as a screen and beat Crawford. It was 3-3, and the Blackhawks called timeout. Didn’t help. Ryan Getzlaf’s backhanded flip from the left boards wound up with Corey Perry, Crawford’s frequent and uninvited neighbor. Corey’s tap-in sucked the oxygen out of the building. It was 4-3 Anaheim. The goals occurred at 8:42, 9:05 and 9:19.
Only once in league history has a team scored three goals faster during a playoff game. In 1979, the Toronto Maple Leafs scorched the Atlanta Flames for a rare triple within 23 seconds. As if he did feel old enough after aging as he oversaw Saturday night’s tense free-for-all, Quenneville was reminded that he recorded an assist on the last of Toronto’s markers.
“No,” replied Coach Q, when asked if he remembered his heroics. But as he noted earlier, the Blackhawks find a way. They engaged in a double overtime and a triple overtime against the Nashville Predators, winning both. The Blackhawks then played four normal games against the Minnesota Wild, never trailed in any, and swept. Now the Blackhawks have triple- and double-overtime conquests against Anaheim, and Duncan Keith – clocking in 40 minutes, 39 seconds Saturday night – is still not tired. He could probably skate from here to Anaheim, where Game 5 is scheduled for Monday night.
Or is it Game 9?