– Just how important were the two points earned by the Chicago Blackhawks
on Wednesday night?
Important enough that injured Hawks forward Patrick Sharp played despite missing the previous seven games with a knee injury and not having a single practice with the team before returning to action. Would Sharp have returned on such short notice had this 4-3 overtime victory at the United Center against the St. Louis Blues been in Game 40 instead of Game 80?
"Ahhhh … probably not," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, concluding his post-game press conference.
Instead, Sharp played for the first time since getting hurt on March 20 against the Phoenix Coyotes and picked up an assist on a momentum-shifting, controversial goal in the second period by Marian Hossa that changed the course of the game.
Trailing 2-0 at the time, that goal effectively rejuvenated a lifeless United Center and sparked a three-goal surge in the second by the Hawks (43-28-9) - whose playoff hopes in the Western Conference were teetering dangerously close to the edge of disaster.
Instead, the big comeback combined with a goal by Chicago captain Jonathan Toews 3:19 into overtime helped to end the playoff hopes of the Calgary Flames, who were officially eliminated later in the evening when Anaheim beat San Jose. It also put more pressure on the Dallas Stars to win their three remaining games if they want to play hockey instead of golf this spring.
Even then, it won't matter if Chicago takes care of business in a tough home-and-home series against the Detroit Red Wings this weekend - starting with a game on Friday night in the Motor City.
"We said in the locker room going into the game and during both intermissions that no matter what happens, whatever they do or if there's a call that goes against us … or if we get scored on in the first shift of the game like we did, it doesn't matter," said Toews, who beat Ty Conklin with a wrister from the left faceoff dot one night after sitting in the penalty box when Montreal scored in overtime. "You saw the motivation. You saw the determination that we had on the ice tonight."
Toews' 32nd goal of the season and first point in five games capped a wild night that saw the Hawks fall behind 2-0, rally for a 3-2 lead and then have to go to overtime when Chris Stewart scored on a brilliant individual effort midway through the third period.
"As hard as we worked last night … especially not getting the two points and ending the game the way we did, it would've been real easy to be discouraged and shut it down after going down 2-0," Toews said. "That team was definitely determined to end our season. Obviously they had nothing to lose, but we knew if we stuck with it we'd find a way."
Forgive the Blackhawks fans among the 21,435 in attendance if they didn't have the same confidence. The full house was stunned when T.J. Oshie's shot hit David Backes and went into the net 17 seconds into the game - and then went silent when Oshie scored a power-play goal just 66 seconds into the second period to put the Blues up by two goals.
Despite being outshot at the time, St. Louis seemed well on its way to dealing a death blow to the Hawks' reeling playoff hopes. But a disputed goal by Marian Hossa at 7:52 of the second was allowed to stand after a lengthy video review, and that changed everything. Hossa's 24th goal of the season pumped life back into a silent building.
The puck hit Hossa's skate, skittered along the goal line and hit the left post, where it angled toward the back of the net before Ty Conklin gloved it. Referee Dan O'Halloran immediately ruled it a goal.
The review was called for because Hossa kicked the puck toward the goal and then it wasn't initially clear if the puck had completely crossed the goal line. Replays appeared to show Hossa just clipping the puck with his stick blade after he kicked it, and the replay officials in Toronto ruled there was inconclusive evidence on video to overturn the call on the ice.
"We had a feeling that the longer it went, the better the chance was it was going to turn out our way," Toews said. "We felt like they were just trying to find proof that it wasn't a good goal. I guess maybe everyone feels the same way, but when you get a lot of goals that are checked out in Toronto by video, we feel like we haven't gotten too many breaks with those - so we're happy that one got us going tonight. We'll take them any way we can."
Conklin and the Blues didn't exactly see it the same way.
"They called it a goal on the ice, which is fine, that's understandable," said Conklin, who was irate. "But the reason we have video replay is to get the right call. It was a close play, but the puck never crossed the line. I was sitting there watching it, and I knew it wasn't over. We know what their situation is. I don't think (we were) trying to knock them out more than anyone else would. (We were) just trying to come in here and play good hockey."
They did just that for the most part, frustrating the Hawks until Hossa's goal gave Chicago a spark it desperately needed. Tomas Kopecky put in a rebound at 13:23 to tie it 2-2 and rookie defenseman Nick Leddy followed with a point blast past Conklin with 1:50 left in the second for a 3-2 lead.
The momentum swing was stark, as the Hawks started playing like the desperate team they needed to be. They wound up outshooting the Blues 20-6 in the second - including 16-1 after Hossa's goal.
"We didn't have a great start," Quenneville said. "Giving up a goal in the first minute isn't what you're looking for. All of a sudden you're down two, in a terrible spot, but we worked our way back into the game. Maybe the excitement level wasn't where we wanted at the beginning, but we ignited it."
The Blues, however, refused to go away.
Stewart tied it at 9:44 of the third when he bulled his way through defensemen Duncan Keith and Leddy before chipping the puck over goaltender Corey Crawford and just under the crossbar. Neither team could pot a goal the rest of the third, despite Chicago getting a power play with 3:43 left after a tripping minor called on Carlo Colaiacovo. The Blackhawks finished 0-for-4 with the man advantage after going 0-for-5 against Montreal on Tuesday. They also failed to capitalize on a 5-on-3 situation for 1:44 midway through the first.
This time, it didn't come back to haunt them.
Leddy, who also assisted on Hossa's goal, and Keith (2 assists) both had two-point nights while 10 Hawks recorded points. Chicago wound up outshooting the Blues 39-24 and got another solid performance in goal from Crawford - who took a puck to the chin off a hard shot by Oshie just 15 seconds before Toews ended it.
Now it's onto Detroit for the start of a big weekend against the Red Wings.
"It was a huge two points," said Keith, whose long breakout pass sprung Toews for the game-winner. "Having said that, I don't think we want to change anything. If anything, we know we can keep playing harder and better. We know we're going to have to … playing against Detroit and beyond."