Marc-Andre Fleury stole the show as the Blackhawks got back into the win column of Sunday night in Vancouver with a 1-0 shutout of the Canucks.
"Our goalie kept us in it," interim coach Derek King said, describing a 'decent' first period and a second that he didn't like 'at all' in the win. "I thought our third period was the best period we've had. Guys were sacrificing, guys were blocking shots, we held onto the puck down in the offensive zone... We weathered the storm and Marc-Andre was on his game."
"Especially when it's not going right for us, obviously we needed him," said Brandon Hagel, who netted the game's lone goal. "He's going to give it to us and we owe it right back to him. His saves definitely give us a little more life on the bench, like 'OK this guy's going so we better pick it up a little bit.'"
The play of the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in net on Sunday night was perhaps the sole reason the Blackhawks were even in the game when Hagel tipped home a Erik Gustafsson shot early in the third period.
"Definitely some help from my posts. Buy them dinner. Maybe a fresh (coat of) paint of… Maybe just treat them a bit for doing good to me." Fleury said jokingly after the game, deflecting some praise of his performance to the red iron behind him. "It's a challenge, right? If I can keep the close, always believe we can get some goals and we take a huge one there in the third."
Keep the game close he did, quite emphatically. In easily he best performance of the season, Fleury stood tall through a lopsided opening two periods where Chicago was outshot 30-13 to keep a 0-0 score. On the night overall, he denied all 40 shots faced en route to his 68th career shutout, his first as a Blackhawk.
"That's not the way you want to play every single night. Fleury battled for us," said Hagel. "He definitely won us that game."
"Probably one of the uglier wins I've been a part of in my career," defenseman Seth Jones said. "We turned a lot of pucks over. We weren't clean or sharp, myself included… Fleury made big saves for our team in the first two periods and kept us in it, gave us a chance, third period we get one and thought we locked it down pretty well."
Having your netminder stand on his head isn't the best game plan on a regular basis, but when a future Hall of Famer is between the pipes, the team knows he can single-handedly give them a chance to win.
"He's spectacular. There's a reason why he's got Cups and is one of the top goalies to ever play," King said. "We've got to clean up some areas to help him out a little better so he doesn't have to play lights out every night. It's always nice when he's on."
"The goalies are always a reflection of the team. We had a rough one yesterday in Edmonton, but other than that the guys are playing hard," Fleury said. "Guys have been doing their best every night to defend better, not give up as many breakaways, 2-on-1s and odd-man rushes and I think we've done a better job of that over the last week. I think it shows."
Hanging around in close games and waiting patiently for the breakthrough strike has been the M.O. of the Derek King era as the Blackhawks, a standard that rang true en route to their fifth win in the last six games on Sunday night. Whether it's the first 10 minutes of a game before the opening goal or nearly 45 like it was on Sunday, the Blackhawks have held a scoreless game one way or another and then found the opening tally in each of their five wins under King.
The win over Vancouver was perhaps the largest marker of the team bending but not breaking, finding the juice to net the equalizer despite a rough middle frame in particular.
"I think they're confidence is building every time we play games like that. You can just see them getting more and more comfortable with each other," King said. "Tonight, even though it is wasn't always pretty, they found a way to battle for each other, to play for each other and they're gradually getting out of that sense of when things go wrong it's depressing. 'Things go wrong? We're OK holding the fort and we'll get out of this.' That confidence is coming back."
Even in the lone loss over the last two weeks on Saturday in Edmonton, the story was shaping up similarly to start. Much of the opening half of the first period was a game King said he was happy with. The difference came when the Oilers got one on a prime look in-tight and then quickly struck again on a two-man advantage to pull a 2-0 lead in a matter of minutes, eventually a 4-1 score by the first intermission. It was the first time Chicago trailed at any point under King or had allowed a goal against in the opening frame.
Less than 24 hours later, although it wasn't pretty at times through the opening 40, the Blackhawks hung around in a 0-0 contest with Fleury spectacularly stopping 15 shots in each of the first two frames before Hagel found pay dirt with a tip in front.
"These guys are just feeling good about themselves. They're getting their confidence back. They're not as fragile as when I got here. It's nice, but it's still a journey. We're just going to keep picking away day by day."
"We're not going to play any game perfect, by any means, but the message is definitely there for us," Jones said. "I think we're playing together and we're getting better as a team every game, whether we win or lose, we're always learning from that experience and taking it into the next game."
Riley Stillman's night was a short one, leaving the contest just under nine minutes in following his fourth shift of the night with a left leg injury.
As Stillman battled for the puck in the corner of his own end, Tyler Motte fell on the ankle of the defenseman's outstretched leg. Stillman needed assistance from Fleury in goal and then the linesman nearby to get to the bench as play continued, snapped his stick on the boards in frustration and then went immediately down the tunnel.