SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The NHL positions its Winter Classic as a nostalgia piece, a throwback to the game’s roots, when kids with frozen toes and dreams brighter and wider than the Milky Way played all day on lakes and ponds and only quit when somebody scored a goal worth talking about on the cold, windy walk home.
We give you Patrice Bergeron, Jan. 1, 2019, late in the second period Tuesday at Notre Dame Stadium.
We give you classic Bergeron, wrapped perfectly around the Winter Classic, and all its pond hockey nostalgia, in front of a sellout crowd of 76,126.
“I see, obviously on that play, that Pasta’s [David Pastrnak] starting to cough up the puck,” said Bergeron, summarizing what turned into the goal that ultimately served as the foundation to the Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Blackhawks on the campus of Notre Dame. “So I am trying to get back right away and just trying to catch the guy and make a defensive play.”
The puck that eluded Pastrnak up near Chicago’s defensive blue line, with the Bruins attacking on a power play, turned into a David Kampf breakaway. The Blackhawks in possession of a 2-1 lead, a shorthanded strike by Kampf, racing a couple strides ahead of Bergeron, would boost the Chicago advantage to two goals with less than 90 seconds to go in the second period.
“Could be a game-changer, right?” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy.
Actually, it could have been the Blackhawks’ closing blow. The Bruins are 0-13-0 this season when trailing by two goals or more in the third period. Kampf was racing right down Broadway with only goalie Tuukka Rask to beat, with visions of the Stadium scoreboard about to read “3-1”.
“I saw Bergy coming back very hard,” Rask said. “And I’m just trying to get my gap right, you know, the guy’s coming in on what he thinks is a clear breakaway so I’m trying not to give him too much net to shoot at.”
Bergeron, meanwhile, was laser focused on the other gap, the stride or two Kampf had on him. That had to be addressed right away. Legs churning, he caught up with him low in the slot as the Blackhawks center glided in on shooting mode.
“Once he went on his backhand,” noted Bergeron, recalling his read in those seconds, “I knew he was going to go back on his forehand, so I was waiting for him to do that and just lifted up his stick.”
The shot never came. Bergeron, as if playing on his favorite childhood rink in Quebec City, raced up and smacked his stick hard on the shaft of Kampf’s stick. Shot negated. Goal denied.
It was all hustle, calculation, and determination, Bergeron summoning all that on a storied field where the Irish football players believe they hold a patent on such gutsy stuff. Those football boys might want to start training camp this summer with a look of the video clip that shows how Bergeron stole their script and rewrote it on the fly.
“A big uplifting play for us,” said Cassidy, noting he was well aware, without Bergeron’s play, that doom was at his bench’s doorstep. “And it’s again one of those things that it’s a teaching moment for our younger guys how not to quit on plays. That’s the leadership we rely on him for — and sure enough it gets rewarded at the other end.”
That was part No. 2 of the same play. Off the breakup, more pond hockey unfolded when Blackhawks penalty killer Brandon Saad lost his stick. That sweet 3-1 lead now was a raging dumpster fire for the Blackhawks.
In real pond hockey, this is that whacky moment when the friendly neighborhood Labrador Retriever, legs splayed every which way as he scrambles across the ice, clenches the puck in his mouth and hightails over a snowbank — every kid on the ice chasing the drooling thief with sticks and boots and shovels.
But there was no dog in the shadow of the Golden Dome. Just a stickless, helpless Saad, and a four-man Chicago PK unit rendered all but helpless. The Bruins were able to mount heavy pressure on Blackhawks goalie Cam Ward. Pastrnak, who only seconds earlier chopped up the puck that Kampf snatched, fired in a short-range shot from the left side.
Guess who was in perfect position in front of the net for the loose puck? Do we need ask? Yep, Bergeron. His easy backhand knock tied it, 2-2.
That was the velvetine dagger. Sean Kuraly knocked home the tiebreaker/game-winner in the third. But that entire sequence — 28 seconds from the time Kampf took possession until Bergeron disrupted and scored — was the foundational piece de resistance.
“It bounced a few times,” Bergeron said. “It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but we’ll take it.”
Quintessential outdoor hockey, and quintessential Bergeron, his recollection of the moment as understated as his game.
Rask, sitting at Bergeron’s side during the postgame news conference, rightly muttered, “Selke . . . Selke,” when Bergeron finished talking about the play. Bergeron has won the Selke Trophy four times as the NHL’s best defensive forward.
The play was sheer artwork. Painted on canvas, it could hang as a masterpiece at the Hockey Hall of Fame. All whipped up in less than 30 seconds, albeit with a lifetime of training, trying, and above all, never quitting. Once over that snowbank, the Labrador never gives up the puck.
“The whole lead-up to it,” said Cassidy, folding the moment into a memorable visit. “Seeing the building to fill [with fans] and looking like it’s not going to go our way, and all of a sudden Bergy back-checks, scores a goal at the other end. I think that’s the part I’ll remember about the actual game.”
Worth remembering. Understated perfection on a perfect Winter Classic afternoon.