CHICAGO – It was a game both teams could have mailed in and easily forgotten.
Instead, the Calgary Flames and Chicago Blackhawks – teams at opposite ends of the Western Conference spectrum – treated a sellout crowd at United Center on Friday night to a game that went into the third period with a one-goal difference.
The Blackhawks eventually outlasted the Flames 3-1 and now have just one game left in the regular season, against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday at Scottrade Center. Chicago has already locked up the Presidents' Trophy and will have home ice throughout the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Flames, meanwhile, have been out of the playoff picture for a while and got a look at some prospects in their last game before looking ahead to the offseason. The combination added up to a spirited effort on both sides.
"A lot of those players [for Calgary] have proven they can be NHL players and I've been in that situation before with the Blackhawks years ago," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp told NHL.com. "It's not fun, but it's an opportunity to play and you want to make the best of it. We just wanted to play in front of our fans. They've supported us all season long. They're a big reason we play well at home and we want to make sure we always give them an effort when we're out there."
The fans wound up getting their money's worth, starting with near playoff-caliber decibel levels during the National Anthem.
Blackhawks stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews then scored midway through the first period to give the Blackhawks a quick 2-0 lead and really ignite the crowd.
After Calgary made it 2-1 in the second on Chris Butler's shorthanded goal, Chicago's Marcus Kruger scored 7:06 into the third to re-establish a two-goal lead for goalie Corey Crawford – who finished it off with some top-notch stops. Crawford made 25 saves to pick up his 19th victory; he might not start against St. Louis -- a game the Blackhawks are likely to rest a number of regulars.
"It's nice," said Kane, who will likely sit out on Saturday after recording at least a point in five of the previous six games (three goals, six assists). "We've been winning a lot of games here. I thought we had a great finish to the season the last 15 games to get hot before playoffs and we've got a lot of players that want to play and a lot of depth on the team. That's huge when the playoffs come around."
Calgary backup Joey MacDonald made 35 saves but took the loss for the Flames (19-25-4), who bounced back in the second after being dominated in the opening 20 minutes.
"That's a good team there," said Lee Stempniak, who had the primary assist on Butler's goal. "They dominated us for stretches, but I thought we never gave up and played hard. I think we did all of the little things right, but a loss is a loss. We certainly didn't embarrass ourselves and I think we can walk out of the rink with pride tonight."
Chicago pounced on the Flames in the first, outshooting the visitors 13-5 and getting the goals by Kane and Toews, each of whom scored his 23rd of the season to continue sharing the team lead. The goals were separated by just 3:28 midway through the period and brought the building to life.
Kane put the Blackhawks up 1-0 by snapping a puck past MacDonald at 9:34 after Sharp retrieved his own rebound and fed him a pass in the bottom of the left circle. Sharp had just had his own shot at a wide opening in the net blocked by Mark Cundari's stick, but didn't give up on the play.
Toews made it 2-0 by tapping home a loose puck in the crease off a rebound of Brandon Saad's shot from the low slot at 13:02, which made it seem like a blowout might be starting.
Toews and Kane could up tied for the team lead in goals if both sit out the final game of the regular season. Both would've enjoyed it if they had one more goal than the other, but it's a friendly competition and helped both push through some tough games down the stretch – when Chicago had basically accomplished all it set out to do in the regular season.
"It would've been nice to get one more than him," Kane said, smiling. "Both of us were kind of lobbying for it and trying pretty hard in the third period, but it was a fun little run there at the end of the season. It seemed like it was one goal that separated us here or there for a lot of the past 20 games. It keeps it fun. If I see him do something, then I'm going to want to do something the next shift. That gets me pumped up, too, and I'm sure he's the same way. It's good for the team if both of us are going."
Maybe more important to Chicago's playoff chances, this was the second game in a row that a recent line combination has paid dividends in the top six forward group. Veteran Michal Handzus, acquired prior to the NHL's Trade Deadline earlier this month, centered the second line between Sharp and Kane.
It started as Handzus filling in for injured second-line center Dave Bolland, but Quenneville said on Friday morning that it might last into the postseason – even after Bolland returns. Handzus didn't collect a point against the Flames, but Sharp assisted on Kane's goal and the trio created a number of chances.
"I thought we had a pretty good game," Sharp told NHL.com. "We were hunting down pucks, creating chances and working away from the puck. That's what made us successful. It was a good game. Hopefully we can build off it and get better for the playoffs."