The Chicago Blackhawks enjoyed themselves practicing under the lights of Soldier Field on Friday night, but they will be more businesslike Saturday.
The defending Stanley Cup champions host the Pittsburgh Penguins in the final game of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series (8 p.m. ET; NBC), and they can't get swept up in the festive atmosphere.
Not only do the Blackhawks know the feeling of losing an outdoor game, 6-4 to the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, but they need points in the midst of a tight race in the Western Conference.
"We talked about it in the locker room, [and] coming back from the Olympic break we want to start strong and finish the season well, regardless of all the stuff going on and who we're playing against," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "We don't see this team too much, but it will be a good matchup for us. We'll try to enjoy the moment as much as we can but find a way to win a game."
Chicago, which is neck-and-neck with the St. Louis Blues for first place in the Central Division, is trying to break a two-game losing skid separated by the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. After losing 2-0 at the Phoenix Coyotes heading into the break, they dropped a 2-1 decision Thursday to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
That leaves 21 games, two fewer than St. Louis, as the regular season dwindles. Each passing game carries more importance than the prior, and Chicago will be playing the top team in the Eastern Conference in prime time on national television.
As the Blackhawks learned from the Winter Classic, there's more on the line than bragging rights.
"Knowing what happened in [2009 at Wrigley] obviously teaches us a lesson, and we know that we want to win bad this time around," forward Patrick Kane said. "There's still two points on the table and it's still a regular-season game, so it means a lot for the standings, and obviously with the position we're in, we want to win as many games as we can."
In order to defeat Pittsburgh, they'll need to keep their focus as sharp as their skates. The Penguins, in a lot of ways, resemble the Blackhawks. They're led by an elite duo (center Sidney Crosby and forward Evgeni Malkin) backed by quality depth on all four lines. Pittsburgh is strong on the blue line and has solid goaltending.
"They've had a great year and they have some firepower over there too," Kane said of the Penguins. "We feel the same about our team, so it's a great matchup to have for this kind of game. It's probably two teams that a lot of people want to watch on TV, and when you mix it in with a Stadium Series type of game like this, I think it makes it even more entertaining. I'm sure a lot of people will be watching this one."
It's a matchup that has all the ingredients needed to produce a memorable thriller, but that comes with inherent danger if either side gets caught up in the hoopla. Pittsburgh knows that after playing in two Winter Classics, but Chicago's core group is aware of it too.
If anything, that's the biggest thing they learned from the 2009 Winter Classic.
"[You] just relax and play a hockey game," forward Patrick Sharp said. "You just try not to get too caught up in what's going on with the big stadium and the fanfare, because at the end of the day you're just playing hockey. You want to enjoy it as much as you can and take in the experience, but you have to focus on what you have to do as a hockey player."
It's a message that's being spread inside the Blackhawks locker room to those who didn't play at Wrigley: Have fun, enjoy the experience, but above all win the game.
"These last two games we've had have been disappointing, to say the least," forward Brandon Bollig said. "Against a team like this, that's up there in the standings, [staying focused] is all the more important. The fact it's in an event like this even adds to the hype, but I think our No. 1 goal, first and foremost, is to get the win and get the two points. We're out there to have fun and enjoy everything, but it's a big game for us."
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent
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