The snow fell hard, slowing passes and quickening heart rates of those charged with shoveling it off the ice during stoppages. The wind swirled off Lake Michigan. The Chicago skyline stood illuminated outside Soldier Field.
These outdoor hockey games are spectacles, recalling youthful memories of pond hockey and creating a party atmosphere for the sellout crowd of 62,921. And Chicago on the first day of March didn’t disappoint.
Neither did the Blackhawks, embracing the elements to snap a two-game losing streak with a rousing 5-1 victory over the Penguins on Saturday night in the last of the NHL’s four Stadium Series games.
Like a hatless Mike Ditka at his jersey retirement ceremony, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said he only added one extra layer for the 17-degree cold. And his buoyant attitude about the elements perhaps set a tone for his team to follow.
“What a great setting to see the snow fall,” Quenneville said. “It adds more excitement.”
The Hawks provided plenty of their own, with big-time players making big-time plays. Goals by Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Kris Versteeg and Bryan Bickell, steady goaltending from Corey Crawford and a simplified practical game in a nod to the weather lifted the Hawks in the battle of 84-point teams.
Toews and Patrick Kane added assists, and Kane hit the post for a near power-play goal as the Hawks’ league-best offense sprang to life. The Hawks held a 31-18 shots advantage through two periods.
“It’s definitely not a burden,” Quenneville said of the challenging conditions. “It’s an exciting day, a great opportunity, and a privilege to play in these games. The memories afterward will be one game you’ll never forget.”
The Hawks did lose Marian Hossa to an upper-body injury early in the second period, but the positives far outweighed the negatives to dim Sidney Crosby’s first Chicago appearance since his rookie season in 2005-06.
The first period initially continued a troubling trend for the Blackhawks. Ranked third on the power-play, they failed to capitalize on both of their chances. That meant just one power-play goal in their previous 22 tries.
But Sharp lit the lamp first, one-timing a Toews pass past Marc-Andre Flurry, er, Fleury for his 29th tally at 15 minute, 35 second mark of the first. The Hawks clearly controlled the pace early.
Toews then undressed Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, flashing fancy stickwork for an unassisted goal at 10:48 of the second. Before the period ended, Kane held on to the puck to allow a rush to coalesce into a 3-on-1, and Versteeg merely had to poke home Kane’s cross-ice pass for his first goal in 11 games.
Versteeg also scored in the Blackhawks’ New Year’s Day game at Wrigley Field in 2009.
James Neal notched the Penguins only tally 6:21 into the third period. Bickell had the Hawks fourth tally at the 13:57 mark and Toews finished it up at 17:52.
In his lone nod to the weather, Quenneville had talked about trying to simplify the game. Toews merely knew his team had to shake off the minor malaise it had shown on both sides of the Olympic break.
Sharp has attended Bears games and lives near Wrigley Field. He gets what these games mean.
“Two great sporting venues, so it’s pretty awesome to say we played a hockey game in both places,” Sharp said. “The one in Wrigley was an awesome experience other than we didn’t win.”
That changed Saturday night.
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