Is it sleep deprivation? How else does one explain such radical mood swings during these playoffs?
The Blackhawks are masters of altered states, but the trend has spread throughout the Central Division, which seems to own the 8:45 p.m. puck drop. (In case you haven’t figured it out by now, when you hear a starting time of 8:30, add 15 minutes.)
Anyway, it’s as if opposing teams during the first round of the postseason – and now the second – are assuming the regimen of night watchmen. One shows up full of hiss and vinegar while the other catches what amounts to a power nap in skates. Then, without any particular warning, they undergo shift changes.
Take Friday night’s taffy pull at the United Center, won by the Blackhawks over the Minnesota Wild, 4-3. This is a festival weekend for oddsmakers, given the Kentucky Derby followed by the latest Fight of the Century. So what are the chances the Blackhawks would roll to a 3-0 lead in the opening period, then be reeling so gravely that they burned their timeout by the middle of the second period?
It happened. You could have fried an egg on the neck on Coach Joel Quenneville and maybe landed a drone on his lower lip too. The same Blackhawks who were so overwhelming suddenly reached down for that underwhelming gear, just in case you thought they didn’t have any surprises left after two weird weeks against the Nashville Predators.
But with the opener before 21,851 tied at 3-3 and the game up for grabs, the Blackhawks – who always seem to think of something – scored the eventual winner with just 59 seconds remaining before the second intermission. Patrick Sharp, who had disappeared into the locker room earlier, fed Teuvo Teravainen along the left boards. The gifted rookie flung a puck that floated like a butterfly but stung like a bee, nestling just inside the far post behind Devan Dubnyk, bearing scant resemblance to the netminder who absolutely saved the Wild’s winter with a frugal 1.78 goals-against average.
He was solved quickly, as Brandon Saad skirted Ryan Suter to score on the Blackhawks’ first crack at the Minnesota net. Then Brad Richards danced around another Wild defenseman, Marco Scandella, to set up Patrick Kane for what amounted to a blur. Nobody stops that. But if this was picturesque, the third tally accrued from grunt work. Andrew Shaw on the forecheck provided for Marcus Kruger, who patiently loitered around the blue paint until he could confidently convert a backhander.
Back in the day when the Wild’s game plan depended heavily on sedating an opponent, a 3-0 problem would be too much to fathom. But this is a better Minnesota team than the Blackhawks cashiered the last two springs. Other franchises employ superstars too, and it was as though the great Zach Parise commandeered the building in the middle session, scoring on a power play and assisting for Mikael Granlund. It was 3-3. Just like that.
After their escape, the Blackhawks suggested they had yet to play a total postseason game. (This is a recorded announcement.) But despite being frayed at the edges, they did some due diligence. Bryan Bickell did not collect his usual goal against Minnesota, but he counted 11 hits. Antoine Vermette hoarded 11 of 14 faceoffs, Corey Crawford did just fine, and the prodigy who rejoined the lineup earned the championship belt. Teravainen, however, could play until Labor Day without requiring a razor.
Playoff beard? Maybe next year.