There were at least six future Hall of Famers going at it Wednesday night at the United Center — seven if you count the man behind the Blackhawks’ bench. On one side, you had Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith. On the other, you had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
And the game that NBC executives can only pray was a Stanley Cup Final preview lived up to the billing, as the Hawks pulled out an entertaining 4-1 victory — their fifth in a row and 10th in their last 11 games — over the Penguins. Kane scored his second hat trick in three games — he has 12 goals in the last 11 games — in the meeting of the last two Stanley Cup champions.
But for all the offensive talent on display, it was a brilliant goaltending duel between Scott Darling and Marc-Andre Fleury, both of whom could be destined for other teams next season, that stole the show.
Darling, making his second consecutive start to allow Corey Crawford time to recover from an illness, was outstanding all night. He made 36 saves, including several of the highlight-reel variety. Perhaps none was bigger than his gloved robbery of Matt Cullen on the doorstep at 5:01 of the third period with the Hawks clinging to a 2-1 lead.
“That was a great play by them,” Darling said. “It was more reflexes and just kind of being a goalie and knowing what they’re trying to do and trying to get in the right position as quick as you can. Lucky to get a glove on it.”
Joel Quenneville reiterated that Crawford is “still our guy,” but he said having Darling at the ready is a “great option to have.”
It wasn’t all good news, though. The Hawks, already without Niklas Hjalmarsson (upper body) and taking it slow with newly acquired Johnny Oduya (ankle), suffered another hit when Artem Anisimov limped off the ice after one shift in the second period and didn’t return. Quenneville said he could “miss a little bit of time.” In his absence, Quenne-ville broke up his red-hot top line and put rookie Nick Schmaltz at center between Kane and Artemi Panarin. It paid off instantly, with Schmaltz assisting on Kane’s first two goals. First, he picked Jake Guentzel’s pocket at the Hawks’ blue line and fed Kane on the rush for a 1-0 lead at 8:49 of the first.
After Scott Wilson tied it at 17:00 of the second, the Hawks took the lead back in the final minute of the period when Richard Panik made a phenomenal move around Malkin — toe-dragging the puck between his skates and kicking it to his backhand — before rifling a forehand past Fleury. Kane called it a goal of the year candidate.
“Really beautiful goal,” Panarin said via an interpreter. “It’s not the first time he’s tried something like that. And this time it actually worked.”
Kane added a pair of third-period goals, another off a pretty backhand Schmaltz feed and an empty-netter in the final minute to seal it. And after a star-studded game, Quenneville, typically restrained with compliments, couldn’t heap enough praise on the rookie Schmaltz and the backup Darling.
Quenneville said Schmaltz will stay at second-line center as long as Anisimov is out, with Ryan Hartman likely moving up to the top line. The hits keep coming, but so do the wins.
“You don’t want to break up that top line when they’re playing so well, but, wow, what a couple great plays Schmaltzy made on my first two goals,” Kane said.
NOTE: The Hawks made one minor-league deal Wednesday, sending forwards Spencer Abbott and Sam Carrick to the Ducks for forward Kenton Helgesen and a 2019 seventh-round pick. Helgesen was playing in the ECHL, where he had three goals in 38 games.
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