NASHVILLE—As midnight approached, Duncan Keith trundled across the visitors’ locker room, his right hand extended.
“Great save late in the third!” he rasped.
“And thanks for ending it,” replied Scott Darling, completing the fist bump. “I was beginning to cramp up.”
Not for the first time, the Blackhawks commenced a Stanley Cup playoff series rather meekly Wednesday evening. In their last 10 opening games on the road, they had been road kill. They lost only a few of those series, and rallied to win more than their share. But, fact is, they hadn’t prevailed in their debut at an enemy rink since way back in 2010, when they snared Game 1 in San Jose en route to a sweep that preceded a Stanley Cup.
On this night, before only a smattering of their fans, the Blackhawks again appeared to have mistaken the start time. (Friday night is the late one at 8:30, guys.) However, upon falling behind by three goals after 20 minutes of torpor, the veteran guests at Bridgestone Arena put on a character clinic for all those who staged a group sing-a-long of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a strategic alternative to renditions at the United Center.
Come 7:29 of the second sudden-death session, Keith drilled the winner past Pekka Rinne to beat the thoroughly stunned Nashville Predators 4-3, and when they write the book about Darling’s career, this chapter will read like all the rest. Could be fiction, except it’s true. Rare is the occasion when a backup goalie, who figures he might not play at all during the postseason, joins the frenzy after only 20 minutes, faces 42 shots and saves 42.
With those pads, and that athleticism, Darling could seemingly stop almost anything, even a hundred of us media types from accosting the free buffet. But that ridiculous robbery of Ryan Ellis to which Keith referred will do. Yet moments following this rub-your-eyes comeback, the all-world defenseman and the rookie masked man calmly comported themselves as a couple savvy entrepreneurs who just closed a big deal.
“We came out flat,” said Keith, who scored on his 55th shift, consuming almost 40 minutes. He can say that again, and it cost Corey Crawford his position at least for the night.
“Amazing things keep happening to me,” concluded Darling.
Niklas Hjalmarsson initiated the return fire with a bullet off a snappy pass from Teuvo Teravainen. That goal, 1:43 into the second, marked the last sighting of Mike Fisher, an important Predator. Lower body was the word. Nashville then got into foul trouble, maybe because the Blackhawks got moving? Skating 5-on-3 after Shea Weber cross-checked feisty Andrew Shaw, Patrick Sharp clicked on an arrangement by – welcome back – Patrick Kane.
It was now 3-2, and the building went from jumping to jittery. Mattias Ekholm put the wood to Kris Versteeg, and seconds later, with Shaw occupying Weber, Kane found Jonathan Toews, who muscled the puck through Rinne. Toews also had two assists, and Kane finished with two assists. It just took awhile for the whole thing to finish. In his first start since Feb. 24, Kane logged 34 shifts over 23-plus minutes. If he wasn’t in shape before Wednesday night, he’s a lot closer after Wednesday night.
The first-period damage went like this. Colin Wilson scored without an assist. When Crawford got tangled behind his net, former Blackhawk Viktor Stalberg buttonhooked around to make it 2-0. On a power play late, Wilson tipped in a missile past Crawford, who couldn’t have felt more alone had he been standing in a telephone booth.
“We didn’t give Crow much help,” understated Keith.
Antoine Vermette, an expensive and coveted trade deadline acquisition, was a “production-based” healthy scratch, according to Head Coach Joel Quenneville. He quickly noted that in the frenetic platform of playoff hockey, guys have come out of nowhere at the start of the marathon to wind up as vital contributors before it’s all over. Vermette has some positive experiences on which to draw. As several Blackhawks noted, he helped slay them during the opening round of 2012, when the Arizona Coyotes advanced in six games.
Kane’s return, after only about seven weeks of what was originally pegged to be a three-month absence, was no less than the second-most spectacular medical marvel of late. Recall that during the final round of the Masters Sunday, Tiger Woods swung and felt something pop in his wrist. He promptly snapped the bone back in place, as he subsequently explained in what loosely could be described as a joint news conference.
Bridgestone Arena is located just across from the magnificent new Music City Center here in the cradle of country songs. Hjalmarsson, proudly Swedish, is still getting used to the genre. The Blackhawks’ star defenseman says he enjoys some of the melodies, but the lyrics tend to be quite sad. The girl always leaves for another guy, the tractor breaks down, the family dog dies. And, as the locals know now, sometimes a 3-0 lead against a very poised adversary also disappears.