You never know what the first competitive game back following an extended break will bring. There's rust to shake off, legs to get back and chemistry to re-build. The Blackhawks, though, seemed ready to go 20 weeks to the day since their last game in a 4-0 win over the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night.
It was the one and only dress rehearsal ahead of the best-of-five Qualifying Round matchup against the Edmonton Oilers, set to begin on Saturday afternoon in Alberta.
Brandon Saad and Dylan Strome each found the net in a 92-second span during the second period and Dominik Kubalik added a pair of power-play goals in the third as Chicago spread its offensive contribution across the lineup. Corey Crawford and Malcolm Subban played 30 minutes apiece in a tandem shutout of the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"There were really good performances, mature performances up and down the lineup and that's the approach we need to have if we think we're going to have success," head coach Jeremy Colliton said after the game. "We're going to continue to talk about those things as we have a couple more days to prepare for Edmonton, but it's nice for the guys to have a positive feeling about themselves. Things went our way but there are certainly a lot of steps left here as we get prepared to play a really good team."
"Everyone feels good about that, but we can't get too high at the same time," said Saad, whose second period tally stood as the game-winner on the night. "We know we have a tough test ahead of us. It's good to feel the puck, have some success and score some goals, play a pretty good all-around game. But at the same time, we've got to stay even-keel here. We're playing a really good team Saturday."
While the game was a good dry run for the entire Blackhawks roster, it perhaps served no player better than Crawford. The veteran had just three practices under his belt coming into the night after recovering from COVID-19 -- returning to the ice only Saturday right before the team traveled north.
The two-time Cup champion stopped all 11 shots he saw on the evening, and though none were overly challenging efforts, he stood tall and held the Blues scoreless in his half hour of action.
"I think it's great to have him back," Saad said. "We have confidence in all our goalies, but for him to have a couple days of practice, (it) looks like he never misses a beat out there. He's an incredible goaltender. He anchors our team and I think we all get confidence when he's in the net."
"He's solid. He just calms us all down, has all that playoff experience and he's been great all year," Strome added. "Obviously we feel comfortable with him in the net and great showing from him tonight. He's a great guy, great team guy and I think we feel very confident when he's in the net."
After Crawford departed at the halfway point, the strong goaltending continued as Subban stepped in and was tested right away with a 2-on-1 break for the Blues. The 26-year-old netminder finished the night with 10 saves on 10 shots to preserve the shutout victory.
"He goes in and he makes a big save right away," Colliton said. "Tough situation to go in cold, but I thought he was really good. He gave us some timely saves that allowed us to continue the momentum that we had and feel really happy for him."
The Blackhawks had largely run the same line combinations for their two weeks of training camp at home in Chicago, but on Wednesday night, Colliton made a tweak to put Kubalik back on the top unit with Jonathan Toews and Saad. The combination that success during their regular-season stint together picked up right where they left off against the Blues, including the game's opening goal with all three playing a role before Saad's back-door finish.
"I was kind of scared in the beginning. First game after a couple months is always tough, but I think it felt pretty good out there and obviously when you score a goal or when your line is going, it's always good," said Kubalik, who assisted on Saad's goal and led the Blackhawks with four shots on the night. "I really enjoyed the game and I think we're ready for Saturday."
Right behind them, one of the hottest lines all training camp -- Alex Nylander, Strome and Patrick Kane -- was also carrying their own success forward -- perhaps, Stome joked, after a slower start.
"They're a fun line to play with. Both have a lot of skill and I think we match up pretty well together," said Strome, who scored on the very next shift after Saad's opener. "Took a little while, took a couple shifts to get going today -- I think they actually ran into each other one time, that stuff happens. We shook the rust off and a couple good chances and nice to get a goal and hopefully we can build on that game."
"I thought all of the lines were good," Colliton said of his offensive group. "They all gave us a little something different. We think we have some flexibility where we can move guys around according to who's feeling good, who's going, what matchups if there's something we're looking for. We've been trying to build that throughout the season and throughout camp and we had some good chemistry tonight."
Following an opening man advantage where Kubalik nearly connected on a one-timer, the Blackhawks successfully killed off three Blues power plays in a row, while not allowing a shot on goal in either of the first two attempts. No team can match Edmonton's power play that converts at nearly a 30 percent success rate, but St. Louis' third-best 24.3 percent clip during the regular season was a good warmup for what is about to come in the Qualifying Round.
"Tonight was a pretty good test," Saad said of the Blues, who were held 0-for-4 on the man advantage. "I know it wasn't a real game, but just to get back in the groove of things, making our reads, being comfortable with our linemate, that's something that we've got to get comfortable with again. When you don't play a game for five months or so, you kind of get out of rhythm. We had some practice, but it's nice to see it in a game a few times."
On the other end of the equation, Kubalik's opening chance on the power play was just a sign of things to come. On an abbreviated second man advantage in the third period, the top unit of Toews, Kane, Kubalik, Kirby Dach and Duncan Keith were slinging the puck around the offensive zone and connected on a tic-tac-toe tally with three Blackhawks touching the puck in a matter of seconds, with Kubalik slamming home a one-timer in front.