The Penguins and the Blackhawks may be the two most exciting teams in the league in terms of star power. The Pens have players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, while the Hawks have Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp.
And on Saturday night outside at Soldier Field, the first meeting between these teams since Dec. 20, 2011, the Blackhawks’ stars shined under the lights at Soldier Field while Pittsburgh’s were snuffed out in a 5-1 Chicago victory.
Toews scored twice and Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Bryan Bickell also tallied for the Blackhawks, while James Neal was awarded Pittsburgh’s only goal.
To be fair, the conditions weren’t ideal. The teams looked like they were playing under a snowglobe, as the flakes began falling heavily a couple of hours before gametime and continued throughout the entire contest. The buildup of white powder made it difficult to skate and move the puck. But that didn’t stop the Blackhawks from putting on a show for the 62,921 fans at the stadium.
“We don’t really need to talk about conditions,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “I mean, it’s the same thing for both teams. There’s not any excuses there. I think that they outplayed us. They had the puck more, did a better job of creating things that way.”
The Penguins struggled in a lot of areas, most notably the power play – where they went 0-for-6 – and defensively in terms of allowing the Blackhawks to create odd-man rushes with their speed and skill.
“We gave up a couple too many odd-man rushes. Well, five too many odd-man rushes, and they all ended up as goals,” center Brandon Sutter said. “That was the difference in the game.”
This is now the third straight loss for Pittsburgh, their second in a row since returning back from the break. They know their poor, lackluster play tonight was unacceptable and that they must figure out a way to get back to playing the way they need to in order to have success.
“It doesn’t feel good,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “You don’t look at anything about this game, the conditions, being outdoors and say ah, we’ll move on. We weren’t good enough. We didn’t compete at a high enough level and we weren’t mentally in the right spot to play this game whatever the conditions were.”
“They’re a good hockey team and they showed it today, but we definitely have to be a lot better,” Crosby said.
While the score may suggest otherwise, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was by far their best player on the ice tonight.
And he had perhaps the most difficult job of all the Penguins, having to track pucks through thick flakes of snow with limited visibility, trying to anticipate changed speed and movement through the piled-up powder on the ground and facing a heavy workload under those conditions. Despite all of those challenges, Fleury was excellent between the pipes for Pittsburgh while facing 40 shots against. He had to be sharp from the very beginning, and he was.
None of Chicago’s goals were on him. On their first, not only was he completely screened, but Sharp’s aim was absolutely perfect. On the second, Toews was in all alone on a breakaway (and Fleury nearly had it, but it managed to keep rolling under him). The third was a 3-on-1 play with Kane making a sick pass to the back door – nearly impossible for a goalie to anticipate and make a save on. The fourth, Bickell was in alone and was allowed too many opportunities to put home his rebound, and the fifth deflected off his teammate Simon Despres.
In addition, Fleury wasn’t getting a lot of help at the other end from his teammates. The Pens didn’t register double digits in shots until there was 8:25 remaining in the second period. By that time, Fleury had already faced over 20.
“Those numbers aren’t going to look great after this one with five goals going in, but I thought he was really good,” Bylsma said. “A couple bounces off skates that found their way by him there, but 40 shots, breakaway, 2-on-1, 3-on-1, he wasn’t going to stop a goal there at the side of the net, so way too much back at him and way too many good opportunities, especially in the first 10-20 minutes of the game. There was a little bit of fighting the puck on distant shots and he was able to be strong and find a lot of those.”
Pittsburgh’s power play, which ranks No. 1 in the league, is a game changer. Many times, it’s the difference between winning and losing. Tonight, it was the latter as it didn’t come through when the Pens needed it to and was a big reason for the defeat.
The Pens were awarded power plays at a lot of crucial moments in the game, where scoring a big goal would likely have changed the momentum and given them a chance to come back. In fact, they got power plays shortly after each of Chicago’s first three goals and had opportunities to respond. They never did.
Then in the third period, after Neal’s even-strength tally made it 3-1, the Pens had yet another crucial chance on the man-advantage – and couldn’t convert. Overall, Pittsburgh went 0-for-6 on the man-advantage in the contest. Bylsma suggested their powerlessness was a combination of factors, primarily the weather.
“Tonight, a lot of the power plays we were fortunate if we just got the ice scraped,” he said. “If you didn’t get the ice scraped, some of the passes I saw back to our point, D to D from our players, that’s as hard and as adamant as they could pass the puck (and they were slowed down). Just because of that, it was a little bit different type of scenario for the power play. Execution-wise, I thought our last one was really good. That’s how our power play has been very good, with that shooter’s mentality and getting pucks to the cage. Our last one was how it needed to be. The first couple power plays we had, maybe didn’t get to that. Whether it was our mentality or the ice conditions or heavy snow at times out there. At this stage too, when you see that as penalty killers, we did the same thing. We were even more aggressive than we normally are. The Blackhawks were and did a good job with it.”