CHICAGO — Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, all 112:08 of it, proved what most of us thought prior to puck drop: The Blackhawks in no way mirror the leaderless, quick-fold Penguins.
The Penguins got off on the wrong foot against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals and never found their balance, ushered out in four straight games after never holding the lead for one second over four games.
Amid the Penguins’ frustration, they mustered but two goals against Tuukka Rask over four games.. They lost their cool in Game 1, lost via shutout in Game 2, and now they’re home, pondering just how many wholesale changes general manager Ray Shero will make before training camp begins soon after Labor Day.
The Blackhawks Wednesday night, en route to their 4-3 win in triple overtime, got off to a Penguin-like start here at their cavernous United Center, where the crowd grew nearly sullen when Milan Lucic struck at 13:11 of the first period for his first of two goals. Unable to generate their trademark speed in the first 20 minutes, unable to navigate through Boston’s thick, heavy defense once in the offensive end, the Blackhawks landed only eight shots on Rask prior to the first intermission. Not one of those shots caused Cool Hand Tuke much bother.
But something happened to Boston’s game early in the second period, oddly after Lucic banged home the 2-0 lead with his second of the night with only 51 seconds ticked off the clock. Over the course of the remaining 19:09, the cakewalk turned into a torture chamber. In fact, by the end of third period, with the scored locked at 3-3 (and a string of overtimes awaiting), the Blackhawks outshot the Bruins, 30-13, from the time Boston took the 2-0 lead.
Playoff hockey, as great as it is, often doesn’t offer a true read when it creeps into first, second, and third overtimes. The winner of a triple-OT game walks (or limps) out of the building with a huge psychological advantage. The loser talks of fighting the good fight, of missed chances, or coming back in a night or two (Saturday in this case) and acting like the loss the night or two before was merely a flesh wound (see: Monty Python).
The best read to be gleaned in Game 1 is that the Blackhawks come as advertised. They are fast and strong and they will give the Bruins a far better fight than anything they faced in earlier rounds vs. the Leafs, Rangers, and Penguins.
Of the first three opponents, the Leafs were the quickest, most agile, and persistent. They gave the Bruins their most trouble, in part because ex-Bruin Phil Kessel posed a threat nearly every shift he took.
It’s exactly what the Bruins expected to see from the likes of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but those two superstars never showed up on the scoresheet.
The Rangers, although they at least stretched Round 2 to five games, offered barely more pushback than the Penguins. They were a tired, almost despondent lot, a team that look tired of trying to shotblock its way to victory. Some 96 hours after losing Game 5, their coach, John Tortorella was fired.
But the Blackhawks have speed, jam, scoring talent, and persistence. They showed it in the middle period when the turned the tables on the Bruins and began carrying the play in long stretches. Brandon Saad’s goal cut the Boston lead to 2-1 at 3:08 of the second period, and the Hawks rolled up a 16-6 shot advantage for the period.
In the third, it looked as if the Bruins put away their sixth consecutive postseason victory when Patrice Bergeron hammed in his power-play goal with 6:09 gone. Tyler Seguin set it up with a short shovel and Bergeron provided the jackhammer, a sizzling shot that beat goalie Corey Crawford high into the net.
And here’s where we found out about the Blackhawks’ no-fold resiliency. Less than two minutes after the Bergeron strike, Dave Bolland again cut Boston’s lead to one goal, 3-2, compliments of a messy turnover by Torey Krug. The rookie blue liner, with plenty of time on his side, attempted to rush a pass up left wing from deep in his own end. The Blackhawks picked it off, transitioned the play in a flash, and Bolland had his first goal of the postseason.
Next, with 7:46 to go, good fortune visited the Blackhawks in a way it never visited the Penguins. Rushing late into the zone, Johnny Oduya hammered a low slapper from just inside the blue line, a shot that was some 18 inches wide right of the net. But at that point, some 18 inches wide of the right post, the puck met Andrew Ference’s left skate. The puck ricocheted sharply, at just the right angle, and into the net.
Tie game. And the night was just getting started.
A little luck can go a long way in the postseason. But that’s not what revived the Blackhawks in Game 1, pulled them out of the abyss of a pair of two-goal deficits. They are strong, they are fast, and they have the ability to come back, to endure. They are in so many ways much like the Bruins.
This is a far stronger, more resilient club than the Bruins faced in Vancouver in the 2011 Final.
The winning goal, by Andrew Shaw, came with veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival unloading a high wrister from just inside the blue line. With Bolland providing a screen low in the crease, Shaw provided the winning tip with 7:52 left in the period. It was Chicago’s 63d shot on net. On a night they easily could have quit, the Blackhawks kept coming, right to the last shot.