It literally couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
The Blackhawks don’t care who scores the goals, but Antoine Vermette was a fitting hero Saturday night. Two days after he was suddenly and perhaps curiously benched for Game 3 of the Western Conference final against the Anaheim Ducks, Vermette scored the winning goal in double-overtime to give the Hawks an absolutely critical 5-4 victory in Game 4.
A fitting hero, not just because he overcame the indignity of a healthy scratch to make an impact, but because of the way he handled the situation like a pro. The 32-year-old Vermette admitted to being unhappy with Joel Quenneville’s decision to bench him for Game 3. But besides expressing his displeasure, he kept his mouth shut, did his job and prepared for the next opportunity.
He made the most of it, firing in a rebound past Frederik Andersen 5:37 into the second overtime to give the Hawks a 2-2 series tie heading into Game 5 on Monday at the Honda Center.
He acknowledged the obvious vindication he felt after scoring the winning goal. But only went so far.
“Yeah, [but] at the same time, at this time of the year you don’t want to make [it about] the individual or a personal story,” said Vermette, who was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes at the trade deadline for a first-round draft pick and defenseman Klas Dahlback. “That main focus is about the team’s success and that’s all that matters. I’m glad we won tonight.”
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, who tacitly admitted his error in benching Vermette and Teravainen for Game 3 by putting both in the lineup for Game 4, appreciated the way Vermette handled the situation.
“I was very happy for him — what a huge goal for him and for us,” Quenneville said. “What makes our game so great is that players are so competitive, they want to play in the worst way and want more ice time. You can understand where he was at — very disappointed. But he’s a great pro, stayed with it, and that line had a couple of looks in overtime and I’m glad he finished it because that was a huge, huge goal. Huge.”
Human nature being what it is, Vermette struggled with the frustration of having to watch Game 3 instead of play in it. But Vermette being what he is, he found the right emotion that allowed him to handle the situation like a professional.
“I was here in the building in the dressing room like the other guys doing a work out there watching the game on TV,” he said. “The emotion — it’s not a pleasant one. As a proud competitor like anybody else on this team you want to be p art of the team. You think you can help the team. I think that’s a natural emotion to get. But at the same time, very supportive of the group.”
The winning goal was a byproduct of an aggressive shift by Vermette, Teuvo Teravainen and Patrick Sharp. Vermette won a face-off. Teravainen had a shot blocked. Sharp missed with a wrist shot. Eventually, Sharp worked the puck behind the net and avoided two defenders to make a nifty pass to Vermette in the slot. Vermette’s first shot was blocked by Ducks forward Rickard Rakell. But the rebound came right back to him and he fired a shot from a sharp angle on the left side past a prone and out-of-position Andersen. It was Vermette’s second goal in 11 playoff games with the Blackhawks.
“We talk about our speed and I think we were effective when we move our feet and that was an illustration of that a little bit,” Vermette said. “We got the puck going in their end a little bit. We stuck with it. They’re very effective as well when they block shots. We tried a few shot attempts on that shift and we stuck with it. And lucky enough we got back and put it in.”
Teammates lauded Vermette for the way he handled the benching.
“Very professional about it,” Patrick Kane said. “I think he was happy he got the chance to get back in there and he wanted to prove his worth and he did that. He’s been around a long time. He’s got a lot of experience. He’s done a lot of good things in this league. Good to see him capitalize on that situation and come through in a big moment for us.”