Traverse City, Mich.-The Blackhawks hung on the best they could on Monday afternoon against the two-time defending tournament champions, but a 3-2 loss to Columbus means Chicago won't get their hands on any silverware this year at the Rookie Tournament.
As they've done for all three games this weekend, the Blackhawks scored the first goal of the game. Luke Johnson, on a typically intense penalty-killing shift, drove into the slot and wristed the opening tally. Just 37 seconds later, forward John Dahlstrom made it 2-0 off an assist by Radovan Bondra.
The scoreboard may have said one thing, but the play on the ice told another story. The Blackhawks took three minor penalties in the first period-not a recipe for success. Columbus remained aggressive, utilizing a physical forecheck to crowd the crease around goaltender Jake Hildebrand, who needed to stop all 11 shots he faced in the first 20 minutes to preserve the lead.
With a spot in the championship game up for grabs, things predictably got chippy as the game progressed. Every stopped puck came with a goalmouth scrum. Graham Knott, one of just three returning Blackhawks from last year's squad, engaged in several skirmishes with his opposite center, Pierre-Luc Dubois. The physicality took its biggest toll on Chicago when defenseman Carl Dahlstrom was cross-checked into the boards and left the game midway through the second.
"They were pressing hard to get that first goal, so they were around our net," Rockford Head Coach Ted Dent said. "Our goaltender played well, then Dahlstrom got hurt and left in the second period, so I think by the end of the game our defensemen were tired. [Columbus] worked hard, they battled back, and we didn't have our best day today."
The Blue Jackets took full advantage of the blue-line deficit, starting the comeback late in the second, before tacking on two goals early in the third period. The Blackhawks, facing more pressure in their own end, struggled to generate scoring opportunities.
"It was scrambly," Dent said." We didn't move the puck that well today, we turned it over a lot through the neutral zone, we didn't really have any sustained offense other than a few shifts here or there, we only generated 12 or 13 shots through two periods. We didn't really protect the puck in their end."
There were bright spots. Hildebrand dealt well with a busy crease and stopped two clear breakaways in the third period, earning praise from Dent. Johnson, again centering the top line in the absence of Nick Schmaltz, was steady yet again, demonstrating a pro-ready work ethic and demeanor in a challenging game.
"Through the whole weekend, for me in these three games, he's been the most consistent forward," Dent said. "You know what you're getting from him. He battles hard on faceoffs, his defensive awareness is really good, and he doesn't cheat the game at all. He's also got a really good shot; he's opportunistic. He's had a really good weekend-by far one of our best forwards."
Although the Blackhawks won't have the opportunity to play for the Matthew Wuest Memorial Cup, named after the late founder of capgeek.com, on Sunday, Dent wants his team to end the tournament on a high note.
"There are some guys who would want to rebound from their performance and their effort today," he acknowledged. "For whatever reason, we just weren't that sharp, so we'll have fun tomorrow and do the best we can."
Chicago plays Minnesota for seventh place at 2 p.m. CT.