The Verdict: Toews, Blackhawks put on show in the snow
Jonathan Toews can do it all, except dabble in mediocrity. After scoring his first of two goals Saturday night, Toews leaped toward the home bench, looking for someone to hug, unashamedly giddy. You would have thought he had not played a game in the last month, let alone collected an Olympic gold medal in the last week.
As long as he’s around, the Blackhawks should go far. If they play the Pittsburgh Penguins here again this season, it will be in June, it will be the Stanley Cup Final, and it will probably be 98 degrees in Chicago. Until and if, March at Soldier Field will have to do, and it will do just fine.
The Blackhawks snow-shoed their way to a 5-1 rout of the Penguins, East elites who never did appear comfortable. Corey Crawford, the victorious goalie, lost his whiteout only because one of his ace defensemen, Brent Seabrook, inadvertently knocked the puck into his own net. The Blackhawks killed six penalties, hoarded faceoffs, and generally dominated while incurring only a single problem: Marian Hossa, upper body injury, departed early.
A goodly number of the 62,921 fans stayed put until the very end, even those granted admission to an indoor club, their nearest point of relief. Maybe these hardy folks were frozen to their seats. Or maybe they just want to take it all in, an evening frozen in time. Most of them never had so much fun with eight layers of clothing on. The Blackhawks were business like, and customers observed mostly basics and fundamentals. I don’t recall seeing that United Center standby, the Kiss-Cam, but I might have missed it.
Perhaps there was a message to be drawn from the inclement conditions. The Blackhawks, with so many gifted individuals, are often accused of trying to create the pretty, perfect play—especially before home crowds. But Head Coach Joel Quenneville implored his heroes to “keep it simple” instead of attempting to craft tic-tac-toe masterpieces on a rink that required constant sweeping. You went to a hockey game and a curling bonspiel broke out.
Off a deft feed from Toews, and with Brandon Saad hanging nearby goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, Patrick Sharp beat him with a drive inside the far post. It was the only score of the first period, or at least the only one anybody could confirm. When the Bears and Philadelphia Eagles battled in a playoff game on New Year’s Eve Day, 1988, much of what transpired was a rumor. Thus, the tilt became known as the “Fog Bowl.”
Saturday night, at least the athletes were visible. But on more than one occasion, the puck was no match for drifts of snow. As black as night, the puck still performed random acts of disappearing while skaters who thought they had possession screeched to a halt, as if they realized they just left the house without their car keys.
Toews’ unassisted winner to make it 2-0 was a winter classic. Captain Serious could generate such offensive highlights more often, but he is a selfless slave to the 200-foot paradigm. Patrick Kane, who hit two posts, arranged the Blackhawks’ third score by Kris Versteeg, his 100th in the big show. Bryan Bickell converted his own rebound in the third period. Then Toews completed the rout. His superstar counterpart and fellow Team Canada luminary, Sidney Crosby? A relatively silent night. Marcus Kruger of the Blackhawks and Team Sweden? Brilliant.
The ice surface was not only buffeted by intermittent flakes and flurries. It was liberally sprinkled by Olympians, many of whom must have pined for the balmy climate of Sochi, Russia. Why else was there such a grumpy motif to Saturday night’s proceedings? The Blackhawks and Penguins shook hands following the game, but for almost three hours prior, there was a bit of a snarly edge to the affair.
By mid-afternoon, the spectator plaza was buzzing with traffic, although the line for a cold one seemed to be unusually quiet. In fact, the young lady behind the counter looked rather lonely. On another day, for any other sporting event, she might as well have been standing beneath a sign, “Warm Beer.”
Also, it had to be a fine night to rob a bank in Pittsburgh. Waves of Penguins fans, appropriately attired in sweaters for “Lemieux” or “Crosby” or “Barrasso,” were in evidence. Merchandise tents played it down the middle, as prescribed for a happening overseen by the National Hockey League. Penguins gear is not that readily available in the United Center.
Shortly after 4 p.m., snow squalls began, just in time for Jim Cornelison’s rehearsal of the Star-Spangled Banner. Also warming up, so to speak, was the weatherproof Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band. They moved briskly, and you would too. Gotta admire musicians who challenge another chilling chapter in a brutal winter wearing kilts.