The Blackhawks promised to enter this season in a state of ill humor, but 10-1? Against hockey royalty? The twice-running Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins?
Thursday night could only have been more perfect for the Blackhawks if this were their last game in June rather than their first game in October. They scored four goals inside three minutes of the first period, or more goals than they scored inside the United Center and Bridgestone Arena during April's playoff capitulation against the Nashville Predators. Good thing the Blackhawks were 0-for-6 on the power play, or this really would have gotten out of hand.
"I like the way everybody seemed kind of ready for the game," noticed Patrick Kane. Brandon Saad, putting on a show for his pals watching TV back in Pittsburgh, notched a hat trick. Then the unit dubbed by grizzled veteran Kane as the All-American Line checked in. Nick Schmaltz had two goals and an assist before he limped off (not serious). Ryan Hartman gathered a goal and four assists. Kane arranged two goals with typical magic and scored one too.
Others who were "kind of ready" included Patrick Sharp, like Saad a beloved returnee, who also scored. So did Richard Panik and Brent Seabrook. Corey Crawford made 28 saves, but did not score on a memorable evening when the Blackhawks embraced one old friend, Bryan Bickell, while brazenly chasing another. Antti Niemi, who backstopped the 2010 Stanley Cup run, debuted with his fourth National Hockey League team but didn't make it to the first intermission.
Kane provided early material for his annual highlight reel. First there was that behind-the-net, behind-the-back room service delivery for Hartman. After Saad nailed his first of three 45 seconds hence, Kane sprung the spin-o-rama maneuver to feed Schmaltz, and it was 3-0. Saad's second prompted the appearance of Matt Murray, the Penguins' No. 1 goalie who lost in overtime Wednesday night, and thought he would have Thursday night off until Niemi beat him to it. Murray had hardly broken a sweat when Sharp raised the ante to 5-0 after 20 minutes.
Happy birthday, indeed, Rocky Wirtz! Kane didn't bake his boss a cake, but he did just about everything else. Tired of merely helping out with that choreography stuff, he scored one of his own for a 6-1 bulge. Backhand flip. Rooftop job. Crazy angle.
"Almost like it wasn't a real game," Kane concluded.
This season marks the 101st for the NHL, with 31 franchises now including Las Vegas, exhibition games having been played in China, a few new rules and minus some familiar faces, notably Marian Hossa in these parts. He was introduced benchside, in civilian attire, before the puck drop and elicited the appropriate roar. Hossa is on long-term injured reserve. Fans will have long-term memories of what he's meant to the franchise.
It's also an anniversary of sorts for the Blackhawks, who were teetering 10 years ago. Voila, Jonathan Toews and Kane arrived in October of 2007. So did Wirtz, who took over as chairman of the family heirloom and almost immediately embarked on damage control. He promptly hired John McDonough to oversee the front office, and the banners atop the United Center tell the story. The Blackhawks have never had a better stretch.
The Penguins are on a roll too, aiming for a Stanley Cup three-peat. Only five teams have ever won three straight or more, and only two since 1967, when the Penguins were born. It's a long shot, but in the salary cap era, so was their repeat last June. The defending champions also have endured ignominy. Twice the Penguins declared bankruptcy, once before Mario Lemieux saved them as a player the first time and again after. There was talk of the Penguins leaving Pittsburgh. The IRS padlocked the doors to their rink. That, my friends, is worse than an audit.
The Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups in six years with their Magnificent Seven: Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, Seabrook, Hossa, Sharp and Niklas Hjalmarsson. But Bickell belongs in the conversation. He played only 16 regular-season games in 2009-10, and just four playoff games. But he did receive a ring.
In the spring of 2013, Bickell was a force, scoring nine playoff goals in 23 games -- matching his total during the abbreviated 48-game regular schedule. One of his postseason tallies will be forever etched in franchise history. With the Blackhawks down 2-1 in Game 6 of the Final at Boston, Bickell tied it at 18:44 of the third period. Just 17 seconds later, boyhood pal Dave Bolland scored the 3-2 clincher. Bickell played 18 postseason games in 2015, when the Blackhawks downed the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Final.
Bickell, 31, is battling multiple sclerosis. He signed a one-day contract with the Blackhawks, and it was quite a day or so. He met the press Wednesday, supported by family and a box of Kleenex. Thursday afternoon, he partook of the annual red carpet ceremony just outside the United Center where fans greet current players and Hall of Fame ambassadors. Bickell couldn't wipe that smile off his face.
After being diagnosed with MS last winter, Bickell finished what would be his last season with the Carolina Hurricanes. He had announced his imminent retirement, but there would be one more lap. In the last game of the season, Bickell was chosen as the first man up in a shootout at Philadelphia. Ever the sniper, Bickell scored and the Hurricanes beat the Flyers 4-3.
It isn't every opposing player who receives an ovation in the City of Tough Brotherly Love, but Bickell got one there. It was not his last hurrah, however. Thursday night, he returned to Chicago and 21,705 arose to welcome him back, a former Blackhawk, a Blackhawk always. Wearing his No. 29 sweater, Bickell took One More Shift and stood for the national anthem beside Toews, in whose arms Bickell landed after that monumental goal at Boston's TD Garden. Just like old times.