ST. LOUIS -- While the Blackhawks can fret about losing this game, they need not lose sleep until the National Hockey League conspires to schedule the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the great outdoors.
Felled by fresh air again, Chicago's not especially weatherproof squad succumbed to the St. Louis Blues 4-1 before an amped Busch Stadium crowd of 46,556 on Monday in a Winter Classic that was damp but not nearly as wet as feared.
On a custom-built rink that proved quite playable, bounces still abounded, and the most fortuitous one benefitted Vladimir Tarasenko, who was credited with the winning goal 12:05 into the third period. Engineering a 3-on-1, Tarasenko's attempted feed to a trailing Jori Lehtera banked in off the skate of Niklas Hjalmarsson. He seemed to have his angle right, but his ankle overruled. These things just happen to the Blackhawks, who are 1-4 against Mother Nature.
Less than two minutes later, Tarasenko drilled a Russian rocket past Corey Crawford for a 3-1 bulge. Alexander Steen soon found an empty net with Crawford pulled, and the Blackhawks adjourned with no excuses. Their signature tape-to-tape passwork was perhaps neutralized on a pond that might even have rendered the Columbus Blue Jackets vincible, but the vanquished visitors actually praised the production, despite the result.
Michal Kempny quieted the crowd in a hurry, beating Jake Allen 62 seconds into the regatta. He scored his first of the season Friday night at Carolina, on a somewhat similar effort. But the Blues tied it 1-1 on one of the afternoon's few highlight patterns. It was punctuated by Patrik Berglund, and thus the second period ended.
According to the multi-layered inclement weather manifesto issued by the NHL, the game could have been deemed official after 40 minutes, but only if one team was leading. If the conditions were utterly unsafe at that juncture, each team would receive a point in the standings with the tie-breaker postponed until Feb. 26 when these rivals next meet in Chicago.
Has any sporting event ever begun outdoors in one city and been completed indoors in another city with the home team disguised as the visiting team? Your ancient historian thinks not. Luckily, by about 2:15 p.m., defying every Doppler radar warning over the weekend, there was only a drizzle hanging around the stadium ahead of a decisive third period. It was 1-1 and stayed that way only because Crawford stoned Tarasenko, who tried again moments later on a power play and clanked a post. Then he finally tallied on no shot at all.
According to several experts on such matters, a ticket for this Winter Classic was as cherished as any for a World Series, and they've had a few here. The Alumni Game drove a lot of the interest, as proven by a jammed Busch Stadium Saturday. After considerable deliberation over an iffy forecast, NHL moguls opted to stick with Monday's original start time, shortly after noon.
Bobby Hull, the Blackhawks' Hall of Fame ambassador, often joked that if he had ever played with son Brett, they'd need two pucks. Sure enough, there they were for the pregame ceremony between captains Jonathan Toews and Alex Pietrangelo. The Hulls, however, walked to center ice empty handed. They paused briefly until each received a black rubber disk.
A misty sprinkle greeted fans, as did a fog that caused the flyover to be canceled and rendered the Gateway Arch beyond center field barely detectable. One expert described the surface as "curling ice," then rescued us novices by explaining that meant a pebbled texture rather than outright smooth. A certain degree of friction is required in curling; that was fine by the Blackhawks and Blues, who've hated each other for 50 years.
One of the Blackhawks who had not played in any of their previous four fresh air adventures attended their first, a coming-out party of sorts for an upwardly mobile organization at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day in 2009 against the Detroit Red Wings.
"I went as a fan," recalled Ryan Hartman, who grew up in West Dundee, Ill. "We had two tickets along the first base line, more toward right field, on the lower level. You couldn't really see the whole rink. So in the third period, we snuck up to the upper deck. We didn't take any seats. We just sat on the stairs. Nobody bothered us. Up there, it was cold and windy."
Hartman played before his parents and girlfriend at Busch Stadium.
Vinnie Hinostroza, another Chicago-area product, played with Notre Dame against Boston College at Fenway Park in 2014. Last February, he logged 8 and a half minutes for the Blackhawks in the Stadium Series game at TCF Bank Stadium against the Minnesota Wild. Players often comment about the difference in background at a ballpark or football stadium.
"When you're looking at the net, for instance, the crowd behind seems so far away compared with playing indoors," Hinostroza said. "But you get used to that. The thing I noticed most was the really cold air against your face when you're skating."
The Blackhawks encountered significant headwinds that afternoon, having been muffled 6-1 by the Wild.
"We got smoked," rued Hinostroza.
Dennis Rasmussen was also there, as were 13 other Blackhawks who went down 2-0 early and trailed 5-0 before Patrick Kane scored. Crawford started in goal and was relieved by Scott Darling, who on Monday brought a well-decorated mask celebrating his beloved Cubs into the Cardinals' lair. He actually packed two, the other with Harry Caray prominently featured.
"Grew up watching and listening to him," said Darling. Crawford wore the throwback look here, highlighted by old-fashioned brownish pads -- not nearly as heavy as those way back when. He encountered 34 shots; the Blackhawks mustered only 23. Deprived of Marcus Kruger, they were acceptable on faceoffs. Given it was Chicago vs. St. Louis in hockey, Monday's motif turned out unusually peaceful.
On Thursday, the Blackhawks return to their comfort zone -- the United Center, where they tend to raise the roof instead of wondering why they can't win without one.