PITTSBURGH – All of the ingredients were there for the perfect All-Star Game appetizer on Wednesday.
The Chicago Blackhawks, sporting five All-Stars and in a bit of a desperation mode to keep pace with the surprising Nashville Predators in the Central Division, arrived at Consol Energy Center to face the Pittsburgh Penguins. The hosts, who had three players named to the Honda 2015 NHL All-Star Game, were coming off an emotional, physically demanding 3-2 road loss to the rival Philadelphia Flyers and were feeling a bit of desperation themselves as they try to stay within striking distance of the surprising New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division.
It was also the final game for each team before the break, so there was no reason to leave anything in the tank. And, oh yeah, it was a nationally televised game, the crown jewel in a Wednesday Night Rivalry doubleheader on NBCSN.
"I don't know if [the schedule] was done on purpose by the League, but it is one of those things where there could have been more potential All-Stars out there too," said Chicago forward Patrick Kane, one of the All-Stars.
But the ingredients for the appetizer got a little mixed up in the preparation, as they so often do, in Chicago's 3-2 shootout victory.
Evgeni Malkin, one of Pittsburgh's All-Stars, missed the game after getting dinged up against the Flyers in Philadelphia. Each team arrived in the Steel City in the wee hours Wednesday morning and got back at it less than 19 hours later.
So, no, the appetizer was not as decadent as some may have hoped.
"I think most fans were hoping for a more wide-open, back-and-forth game, but it didn't really happen tonight. But it was still a good hockey game," said Kane, who scored the game-ending goal in the shootout.
It was a really good hockey game, in fact, and it was still able to serve the main purpose of an appetizer for the weekend. The moments of sheer individual brilliance from each of the seven players bound for the All-Star Game only whetted the appetite for the skill that will be on display at Nationwide Arena in Columbus. That display will begin Saturday with the Honda All-Star Skills competition and conclude Sunday with the game itself.
Let's start with the Blackhawks, who scored the only two goals in the four-shot tiebreaker.
After David Perron missed for the Penguins, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews snapped a quick wrister that beat Marc-Andre Fleury, one of the six goalies who will take part in the All-Star Game. Chicago's Corey Crawford then outwaited Sidney Crosby in another battle of All-Star selections. Just like that, Kane, who had been quiet until late in the third period, had the game on his stick.
Kane, a star in the skills competition of whatever All-Star Game in which he has appeared, skated quickly into the zone before applying the brakes into a controlled skid and shooting a nasty wrister to Fleury's right for the deciding goal.
"Just came down, tried to slow up a bit and see what he gave me, saw a little space there, blocker-low and tried to get it a foot of the ice and my instincts were right and it went in," he said.
It was a bitter end for Fleury, who was brilliant throughout the game. He finished with 24 saves, many of the highlight-reel variety, including one on a Marian Hossa slapper that knocked off the goalie's helmet and a chest save on a surreal backhander by Kane off a spinorama move midway through overtime.
The win was a crowning achievement for Crawford, who was selected in fan voting as the first goalie named to the All-Star squad. Crawford finished with 33 saves, including four in overtime, and was 2-for-2 in the tiebreaker.
"He's always there, thank God," Toews said of his goalie.
Toews, Kane, Crawford and defensemen Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith will make the trip to Columbus to represent the Blackhawks. Crosby, Fleury and maybe Malkin will do the same for the Penguins.
They'll all meet up again on Saturday and Sunday and test their skills once more. It won't be nearly as serious, but it will still be dramatic.
"We're going to enjoy it," Toews said. "It's going to be a lot of fun for us and our families, just representing the Hawks. I think we all realize it is an honor. We have a couple of guys going for the first time, so it will be an honor to share that with them. I don't think it's meant to be a complete serious weekend. Obviously, you want to go and showcase your skills and show why you are there. It's something you can definitely enjoy and not put as much pressure on yourself as you would with your regular team."
But the weekend will be as much about having fun. "I'm sure there will be a lot of laughs," Kane said.
In fact, the laughter started Wednesday in the visitors dressing room at Consol Energy Center.
Toews will pick one of the teams on Friday in the All-Star Draft. Columbus' Nick Foligno will pick the other team and will receive some help from Kane, who is an alternate captain for Team Foligno and will have to play against Team Toews.
Asked for his strategy heading into the draft, Toews paused and smiled wide before delivering the first of many jibes to be delivered across the next four days.
"Just outwit Kaner, so it shouldn't be too hard."