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Blackhawks undeterred when taking on the elements

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- The wind whipped in howling gusts, the snow fell in sheets and Soldier Field transformed into a gigantic snow globe.

The calendar read March 1 for the game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins last season, but nobody thought about spring's arrival during the Windy City leg of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.

Chicago's iconic football cathedral, located near the shores of Lake Michigan, was frigid with polar air and awash in white. It was the perfect backdrop for an outdoor hockey game, reminiscent of the days so many players spent as kids on frozen lakes and ponds.

It just wasn't reminiscent of a typical NHL affair.

"We knew it was going to be a different type of game, especially during the warm-ups," said Chicago forward Patrick Sharp, who scored a goal and assisted on another in the Blackhawks' 5-1 victory. "It was cold, but the snow was the main factor. It was tough to really see and handle the puck. I just assumed that things were going to be a lot slower than a normal game out there … and it definitely was to start."

That changed toward the tail end of the first period. What should've been miserable conditions for both highly skilled teams became only a nightmare for the Penguins. They were burned multiple times by pretty plays, which were completed by the Blackhawks amid conditions that begged for simplicity.

"I guess we were just willing to try things, and when you do … sometimes it pays off," said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, whose first of two goals was scored off a dazzling solo effort in the second period. "You get a lucky bounce or something, which I think was the case [with my first goal], so it was fun to see that happen. It was a fun win for our team."

It might be a lesson for the Washington Capitals.

They will host the Blackhawks at Nationals Park on New Year's Day in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, TVA), which means facing the same main cast of characters. Chicago has added playmaking veteran center Brad Richards, which means even more skill around to try those seemingly risky plays outdoors.

"It's tough to forecast and handicap as the game [goes] on, but our guys can make plays and we've got a lot of guys that on a given night can step up and might wow you in a situation," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "At the end of the day, you've got to do things to enhance your chances of winning and our guys are capable of doing that. At the same time, you might get a wow in there."

Sharp, Toews and right wing Patrick Kane provided three memorable wows against the Penguins.

The first was courtesy of Toews and Sharp, who scored the first goal of the game at 15:35 of the first period. Toews slid a near perfect feed toward the faceoff dot in the right circle and Sharp snapped a wrist shot through traffic that snuck inside the post on the far side of the net.

Considering the rate at which the snow was falling, some openly wondered if that might be the game's only goal. Turned out the Blackhawks were just getting started.

Toews' first goal made it 2-0 at 10:47 of the second and was the most replayed highlight clip of the day.

After collecting a loose puck off a turnover in the neutral zone, Toews quickly gained speed. He skated the puck down the middle of the snow-covered ice and began to close the gap between himself and defenseman Brooks Orpik. Once he passed the blue line, Toews walked right around Orpik in the high slot with a deft outside-inside move and quickly regained his stride for an uncontested rush.

A quick deke to the backhand sent the puck sliding toward the five hole against Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. It glanced off the blade of the goal stick, took a slight carom off the inside of Fleury's left pad and snuck though the wickets, stopping a foot over the goal line.

"I kind of came [up ice] with speed and it just kind of, you know, popped in my head like, ‘Why don't I just try something?'" Toews said recently. "The ice was good, because I think the snow was kind of tricking everybody. I thought, 'Might as well just try and flip it through him or try something here, you never know what could happen,' and sure enough I was able to pull that off."

Sharp, who saw the play develop from the left wing, wasn't exactly surprised.

"I've seen him try that stuff a bunch of times," Sharp said. "Every once in a while it works. Once he got around the defenseman, I just tried to get to the net and hope for a rebound. I know the puck kind of squeaked over the line. I don't think it even hit the back of the net."

The next Blackhawks goal did.

It was scored by Kris Versteeg nearly six minutes later to make it 3-0, but the pass that set up the tap-in goal is what raised eyebrows. After dangling the puck past a defender in the left circle, Kane sent a precise pass to Versteeg at the back side of the crease. The puck hovered just above the ice on its journey, a saucer, before Versteeg redirected it into the net with his stick.

"It was just a fun game," Toews said. "As a team, we definitely enjoyed it. [Sharp] and I had a good game together. We were clicking out there. I don't think we expected to score that many goals with the condition of the ice, but it was fun to get a few bounces like that."

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