Rick Gunville has attended countless Blackhawks games. His family has held season tickets since 1972.
But waiting in line Sunday to be one of the first spectators inside the United Center, he knew he was about to enjoy a one-of-a-kind fan experience.
‘‘It will definitely be unique,’’ Gunville said. ‘‘Obviously, the stadium is not going to be full, but I’m sure there’s a lot of passion with the group of people that are here — longtime fans. It’s going to be nice having the energy back in there. I’m assuming the players will feel that.’’
He wasn’t wrong. The Hawks welcomed a limited-capacity ‘‘sellout’’ crowd of 3,820 back to Madison Street with a rousing 4-2 victory against the Stars, scoring three goals in the first period and protecting that lead the rest of the way.
Alex DeBrincat moved into third place in the NHL with his 30th and 31st goals, with the second all but sealing the victory with 3:12 left. He was around for three years of 21,000-person crowds but was reminded Sunday how it’s ‘‘a lot of fun when they’re in the building.’’
Goalie Kevin Lankinen, however, was not. After dreaming all season about what his first game with a roaring crowd behind his crease would look, sound and feel like, his first-star lap was something out of a fairy tale. He earned it, too, saving 37 of 39 shots in his final start of the season.
‘‘I wanted to soak it all in,’’ Lankinen said. ‘‘Those are the moments you dream of growing up playing hockey as a kid. Especially here in the United Center, you know how loud the fans can be. It’s probably the best place to play a great game. So I really took my time and enjoyed it. It’s going to be a good memory for me going forward.’’
Kevin Lankinen on March 25: "I think about it quite a lot. I like to imagine and visualize the whole building being full of those loud Blackhawks fans."— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) May 10, 2021
Kevin Lankinen tonight: pic.twitter.com/hA9M6BjXjq
Collin Delia will start in goal in the season finale Monday, so Lankinen officially finished his season 17-14-5 with a .909 save percentage.
‘‘He was excellent,’’ coach Jeremy Colliton said. ‘‘[I’m] really happy that he has that one to leave with. He’s had a very good season and [taken] a big step for him and his development.’’
Including Lankinen, 10 of the 20 players in the Hawks’ lineup were rookies, tying the franchise record set in 1927. Twelve players weren’t in the opening-night lineup just four months ago.
And that group held its own in the third period, showing maturity beyond its years even as the Stars pushed for an equalizer.
‘‘I don’t know how many teams end up playing 10 rookies in a game, and it’s not like it’s the last one, either,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘We’re going to do it again [Monday]. It says a lot about them.’’
As much as the last couple of months have underscored the flaws in the Hawks’ roster, Sunday represented an encouraging glimpse of a brighter future: a new-generation team, headlined by players such as DeBrincat and Brandon Hagel (goal, assist), playing exciting, successful hockey inside a raucous United Center.
Those big-picture thoughts can be saved for the offseason, though. The Hawks’ players and coaches and the few thousand fans making up the first home crowd since March 11, 2020, were content to savor the occasion Sunday.
‘‘I’ve been talking about it for weeks,’’ Gunville said, shortly before heading up to Section 223. ‘‘I just wanted to see one game. And tonight’s the night.’’
‘‘It was such a huge difference, right from the anthem,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘You couldn’t help but smile when you heard the reaction of the crowd. As the home team, you really feed off that energy. We’ve missed that this year.’’