Despite all the skill on the roster, all their speed and talent, the Blackhawks really don’t want to get into a track meet on the ice. As long as Joel Quenneville stands behind the bench, the Hawks always will be a defense-first team. It’s how they won the Presidents Trophy and Stanley Cup in 2013. It’s why they’ve stayed above .500 this season despite their lengthy early season scoring drought.
So while it might be fun to watch them skate end to end with a high-skill team such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s not their preferred style.
“I think the fans like it more than we do,” Bryan Bickell said. “I think Q pulls out his hair when that happens.”
Well, OK. Patrick Kane likes it, too.
“Yeah, it’s fun,” Kane said Tuesday night after he scored the lone goal in the shootout in a 3-2 victory over the Lightning. “The first period was really fun. I thought it was going to be a wide-open game. A lot of penalties kind of stopped the flow of the game, but they’re a good team and they like to go. So it was a fun matchup.”
And one that many people forecasted seeing in the Stanley Cup Final back before the season. The Lightning are the top team in the Eastern Conference, having won six straight before falling at the United Center. And the Hawks, after their early stumbles, have won two straight and three of four.
“It was another good game by us,” goaltender Corey Crawford said. “It was a big win for us on home ice against a really good team on the other side.”
Speaking of fun, for Crawford, there’s nothing quite like facing down Lightning star Steven Stamkos in the third round of the shootout, when a save means a win. Crawford got both.
“Yeah, it’s fun,” Crawford said. “A chance to win the game on a save is something every goalie wants.”
Early on, the Hawks had it both ways, as they played a wide-open offensive style while thoroughly stifling the Lightning. They owned the puck and fired 19 of them at Ben Bishop in the first period, while holding the Lightning to just one shot through the first 13 minutes of the game. Unfortunately for the Hawks, just like last season — when they held the Lightning without a single shot in the first period but lost 3-2 in a shootout — it didn’t amount to much. Bishop stopped everything, including golden chances on the power play by Kane, Brandon Saad, Brad Richards and Marian Hossa. And that one Tampa Bay shot went in, a shorthanded goal by Cedric Paquette at 4:35 of the first.
The Hawks got it back by getting in Bishop’s face in the second period, Brad Richards scoring four seconds after a power play ended while Kris Versteeg flew through the crease. Marcus Kruger then gave the Hawks a lead early in the third, tipping a seemingly harmless Niklas Hjalmarsson shot past Bishop, again, just after a power play expired.
But Nikita Kucherov one-timed a Stamkos cross-crease pass past Crawford midway through the second period to tie it 2-2. Johnny Oduya was hurt blocking a shot with his foot on the long shift in the Hawks zone, and didn’t play the rest of the game.
“We’ll know more tomorrow,” Quenneville said. “Hopefully, he’ll be all right.”
These East vs. West showdowns tend to be a clash of styles, and the Hawks always are wary of getting sucked into a more up-and-down game. While the Hawks have been successful in such games, and while Duncan Keith was quick to point out that the Hawks have plenty of speedy players that like to skate, too, Quenneville prefers the offense to be generated by solid defensive play and quick transitions up the ice.
“Opening up is based on if you check well, you get some offense off it,” Quenneville said. “We play the same style no matter who we’re playing, with an awareness of what they’re up to. Teams that attack, if you check well you can get some odd-man breaks, some scoring opportunities off the rush. But certainly just going in there thinking you want to outscore them and outgun them, you lead to giving up some higher-quality stuff.”
That’s the in-game story line. The big-picture question always is the same: is the more open Eastern Conference able to hang with the more defensive and deeper West? Stamkos bristled at the idea.
“If you’re saying that the East is easier to play in [than] the West, I don’t think it is,” Stamkos said. “You’ve got Boston, you’ve got New Jersey. You’ve got teams that are physical who play very defensive games, and you have some teams that can throw up some goals. … We’re not really paying attention to East vs. West.”
Not until June, at least.