CHICAGO — There were no hanging heads in the United Center’s visiting dressing room after the Bruins’ 3-2 shootout loss to the Blackhawks on Sunday.
For 65 entertaining minutes, the Bruins gave the defending champs a heck of a fight. At the conclusion of real hockey, the only difference between the winner and loser was a skills contest.
When it comes to skill, the Blackhawks have no rivals.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, one of the best 1-2 punches in the business, beat Tuukka Rask in the shootout. Both went blocker side with accuracy usually delivered by Raytheon. At the other end, Brad Marchand was the only Bruin to solve Corey Crawford.
Had it been a playoff game, the Monday matinee between the Bruins and Kings at TD Garden would have had to be postponed. The Bruins and Blackhawks would still be playing.
Sunday’s game marked the fourth overtime game the Bruins and Blackhawks played in their last seven clashes dating back to last year’s Stanley Cup Final.
“It just continues to be the same as it was last year. You need overtime to resolve these games against us,” said coach Claude Julien. “I thought it was a real good test as far as our team is concerned with the way we’ve played lately.”
The United Center rocked. Anthem singer Jim Cornelison was at his usual 11 on the PA system. Milan Lucic squared off against Niklas Hjalmarsson. Zdeno Chara matched up against Toews. Save for the scruff missing on their chins and cheeks, the Bruins and Blackhawks could have been playing for the Cup instead of 2 points.
“It’s definitely the type of atmosphere that reminds you of playoff hockey,” Patrice Bergeron said. “That being said, we’re still a long way from that. But it was definitely a big game.”
The teams remain as different as the thin- and thick-crust pizzas preferred by their respective cities. The Blackhawks play hockey as if it were Formula One: ridiculously fast with precise movement, beautiful results, and few lead changes. The Bruins are the short-track NASCAR machine that bumps and grinds and hammers its way to a checkered flag with clumps of heavy metal in its wake.
In the opening 20 minutes, the F1 racer nearly pulled away for good.
The Blackhawks started the morning playing a different game altogether. When they’re firing, the four-line Blackhawks rapidly turn defense into offense as easily as striking a match. The first period showcased the Blackhawks at their best.
When they gained puck control in the defensive zone, they used center ice as a launchpad. Once they crossed the offensive blue line — always with the puck, never dumping and chasing — they swarmed Rask with line-after-line heat. On Chicago’s first goal, with Chara caught up ice, Patrick Sharp set up Marian Hossa with a perfect backdoor dish.
The chances continued. On the next shift, Sharp nearly set up Toews. Later in the first, Brandon Saad’s net-front chance went wide. Kane executed one of his trademark spin-o-ramas — Matt Bartkowski was his victim — to spring Saad for a far-post bid.
All those shots would have dropped another opponent. The Bruins’ collective jaws, however, stood firm.
“We’re not huge fans of the back-and-forth type of game,” Shawn Thornton said. “It doesn’t suit our style as well as it does them. But I thought we did a good job of limiting turnovers and getting pucks in during the second and third period. It could have went either way.”
Their puck management improved. They started to win battles along the walls. With 18.9 seconds remaining in the first, Brad Marchand tied the game with an off-wing snap shot past Crawford. In the opening minute of the second, Marchand scored again.
The Bruins carried that life into the rest of regulation. The only blemish was a sharp-angle Brandon Bollig shot that thudded off the tip of Rask’s left pad and slid over the line at 9:44 of the second.
“I thought the pace was tremendous,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. “Started quick and it didn’t stop. They’re a dangerous team. They get the puck, they make plays, and they hang on to it. They have patience and play recognition. They have all guys active and wanting the puck.”
The Bruins faced their toughest test in overtime. With Bartkowski serving a cross-checking penalty, Chicago rolled out four forwards: Kane, Toews, Sharp, and Hossa. All can stickhandle, snap the puck around, and finish. The Bruins kept the four Olympians from doing their best work. The best chance came off the stick of Gregory Campbell. After Bartkowski left the box, he set up Campbell for a backdoor snipe. Campbell had an open net. Campbell heeled the puck wide right.
“We’ve got to be happy with our effort,” Marchand said. “The PK did a good job, especially on the four-on-three there. Tough loss. But we’ve got to be happy with a lot of things.”
This season, the power is in the West. Chicago, Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis, and Los Angeles are built for the Cup. All have more points than the Bruins.
The East is stuffed with pretenders. The Bruins and Penguins are not among that group. One of those two could play for a championship while four Western heavyweights stay home.
“I don’t think we have to look over our shoulders or over-respect anybody,” Julien said. “We’ve just got to go out there and show that we’re part of that group, and we are.”
The Bruins host the Blackhawks March 27. It will be their second and final regular-season meeting. But it may not be their final showdown of the season.
There would be few who would decline a Cup rematch. There would be no shootouts to decide the games. The coffeemakers will be placed on alert.