Strip away the spectacle, the telegenic quality, the revenue and the flat-out fun of outdoor hockey in the snow, and look at the NHL’s Stadium Series objectively. Here you have two teams — two contenders jockeying for playoff positioning, no less — playing a game while skating into a 15-mph headwind. While struggling to open their eyes in swirling snow. While pushing skates and pucks through mini snowbanks, up to an inch high around the goalmouth.
An actual game. That actually counts.
From a purely objective standpoint, it’s absurd.
But nobody at Soldier Field on Saturday night seemed to mind. Certainly not the Blackhawks, who conquered the elements and the Pittsburgh Penguins in a dominant 5-1 victory. Just witness the way Patrick Sharp hopped around the ice like a kid after scoring the first goal of the game, or the way Jonathan Toews leapt into his own bench after one of his two goals.
As goofy and gimmicky as outdoor hockey is, it’s hard to argue with the cool factor of playing a big, nationally televised game in front of 62,921 fans in a driving snowstorm.
“It really did feel like a real outdoor game,” Sharp said. “There was no real system or structure to our game. Basically just hoisting the puck around, slapping it around and having fun doing it. … Our team took this game seriously, we wanted to win. But at the same time, we’re out there having fun.”
The only downside — and it could be a big one — is that Marian Hossa left the game in the first period after taking a hard hit by Craig Adams along the end boards. Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said it wasn’t a long-term injury, but that he will “miss some time” with an upper-body injury.
The conditions made for a visually stunning affair, particularly in the first period, when the snow was at its heaviest. Despite frequent shoveling breaks, the snow piled up in a hurry. Duncan Keith took a moment during a Hawks power play to clear away some snow on the blue line, but he said it wasn’t much help. Sharp said just opening his eyes was tough. And Bryan Bickell said the hardest part was “not thinking about our toes. Because my toes were frozen.”
And while the snow made for a simplified, just-throw-the-puck-on-net style, the Hawks’ first three goals were as visually appealing as the snow-globe setting.
Sharp got it started, taking a feed from Toews and ripping a perfectly placed shot — banking it in off the top of the far post to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead at 15:35 of the first, and sending Sharp giddily hopping into Toews’ arms.
“I honestly thought that was the game, 1-0, the way things were out there,” Sharp said.
Midway through the second period, Toews had one of the prettiest goals of his career, simply undressing Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, pushing the puck through the snow and beating Marc-Andre Fleury five-hole with a quick deke.
“Shows how special he is as a player, that he can do that in the conditions like this, and skate and move the puck the way he did,” Kris Versteeg said. “Also to deke, and keep his speed up with the puck on that goal — it’s something special, and that’s why he’s a special player.”
Six minutes later, Versteeg — who scored in the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field — picked up his 100th goal of his career off a terrific pass by Patrick Kane. Kane carried the puck into the zone and waited just long enough for a lane to open up, sending a perfect pass across the slot that hit the hard-charging Versteeg’s stick on the tape for an easy tap-in. In normal conditions, it would have been a nice pass. In the snow, it was even more impressive.
The Penguins finally got on board at 6:21 of the third, when Brent Seabrook inadvertently put a James Neal backhander past Corey Crawford — “He’s a good player,” Crawford chirped. “Given him an open chance like that, he’ll bury it.” But Bryan Bickell sealed it with an old-fashioned ugly goal at 13:58, stuffing a puck underneath Fleury, and Toews tacked on one more goal with 2:08 to play.
For many of the Hawks, it was their second outdoor experience, following the Wrigley game, when they lost to the Red Wings. It was cold, it was windy, it was snowy, and it was unlike like anything the St. Louis Blues or Colorado Avalanche will have to experience this season.
But nobody was complaining. Because it also was unlike the Blues or Avalanche will get to experience, either.
“If you asked every guy in here,” Versteeg said, “they wouldn’t have it any other way.”