BERLIN — Ten years ago, the week before their 2009-10 Stanley Cup-winning season began, the Blackhawks lost to the ZSC Lions, a Swiss team.
Correlation does not imply causation, so the Hawks were pleased to not encounter a similar fate Sunday in a 3-1 victory over Eisbaren Berlin.
But it was no blowout. Despite a severe lack of possession, the Berlin team maintained a 1-1 tie well into the third period and kept pushing until an empty-netter in the final two minutes. The Hawks seemed thankful for that competitiveness.
“It was exactly what we were looking for, as far as a test,” Jeremy Colliton said. “Give a lot of credit to Berlin. They played extremely hard and pushed us, and I thought overall we played pretty well. Finishing, of course, would’ve made it easier on us to finish a few of our chances. But in a way, it almost worked out for the best, because it forced us to grind to get the result.”
After a loose first period, perhaps adjusting to the 15-feet-wider rink and the unnerving extra space that provided, the Hawks looked clearly on a different plane than their German foes.
They out shot Eisbaren — rough translation, Polar Bears — by a 40-28 margin, and held the hosts to four 5-on-5 scoring chances over the latter two periods, by Colliton’s measurement.
Yet they were also obliged to practice a number of different situations in live game action: a four-minute penalty kill, a goalie pull situation and a hostile crowd (more on that later).
And this was far from an 80-percent-effort scrimmage, too — Dennis Gilbert, for example, crushed an Eisbaren prospect along the boards at one point, and it did not feel out of place.
“European teams want to prove themselves. There’s a lot of good players over here, whether it’s Germany, Switzerland or Russia,” Jonathan Toews said. “You can’t just assume you’re going to roll over them. We had to work for it tonight, for sure.”
Toews’ and Patrick Kane’s line created both even-strength goals for the Hawks, one alongside Drake Caggiula and the other with Alex Nylander, the two contrasting wingers that Colliton has rotated on and off the top line throughout recent games. David Kampf, a day away from his return to his Czech Republic homeland, added the empty-netter.
Corey Crawford looked sharp, too, stopping all 16 shots he faced before subbing for Robin Lehner, now healthy again, halfway through. Lehner saved 11 of 12.
“The problems we had [Wednesday] against Washington, we were sloppy with it, we turned a lot of pucks over and that’s how they created most of their offense,” Colliton said. “Tonight, we were much better. We had a lot of pressure on the puck, and we were able to force turnovers and created some transition chances.”
The most striking aspect of the night was the Eisbaren supporters’ section, a massive entourage which chanted and sang and stomped repeatedly for three hours.
Such a soccer atmosphere here in Berlin. I love it, honestly. pic.twitter.com/BCbxMNcc3n— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) September 29, 2019
The players the Hawks faced on the ice might not have been of typical NHL-caliber, despite their determination, but the atmosphere was not merely equal to North American standards, but beyond it.
That intensity — or distraction, depending on who described it — forced the Hawks to adjust to one final new element before jetting to Prague for the season opener. And that, after all, is the ultimate purpose of the preseason.
“It was pretty cool, definitely a different experience,” Crawford said. “It would kind of be nice to have something like that back home.”