It may have been a miserable winter evening outside, but inside the United Center on Tuesday night, the Chicago Blackhawks made their fans fantasize about summer once again, defeating the Minnesota Wild 5-3 in front of a packed house.
The night’s main star was supposed to be Marian Hossa, whom the team honored for playing in his 1000th career game over the weekend in Detroit. The players all wore Hossa jerseys during warm-ups, team brass presented Hossa with a silver stick and a portrait of him hoisting the Stanley Cup during a touching ceremony, and his image was plastered all over the video board throughout stoppages and intermissions.
Hossa even did his part to celebrate, scoring what ended up being the game-winning goal with a late first period tally.
What no one could have realized was the guy who ended up stealing the spotlight was a player that head coach Joel Quenneville has had to send messages to repeatedly about his play. A guy whose bruising physicality and flashes of offensive ability have tantalized fans during that stretch, but who has ultimately fallen short of the expectations that fans have of him. That guy is Bryan Bickell, and he finally could be rounding into form.
Playing on a line with Andrew Shaw and Viktor Stalberg has seemed to work wonders for Bickell. He has seen his ice time rise over the past several games, and Tuesday was evidence why. With about six minutes left in the first period, Stalberg fired a high shot that Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom had to fight off toward the near post. The Wild were unable to clear the puck from the crease, and Bickell did what Quenneville and every other coach on this team has implored him to do, which is to win a puck battle using his size, and shoveled the puck into the net for the go-ahead tally.
As if that wasn’t enough, Bickell added a second goal later in the period using much the same tactic. Up along the boards in the offensive zone, he and Marcus Kruger battled hard against several Wild skaters, but Bickell ended up freeing the puck out to Brandon Saad, and when the youngster bolted toward the net, Bickell followed. Saad dished a backhand pass onto Bickell’s stick, and he responded by firing a nifty shot over Backstrom’s shoulder to give the Hawks the 3-1 lead.
Those two displays of grit and offensive skill had to not only make Quenneville exceedingly happy, but also have to take some of the pressure off of Bickell’s shoulders. He is a guy who has been called out publically by his coach in the past, and has always been a kind of ugly duckling when fans of the team discuss potential areas of weakness. This season, however, Bickell has taken his game to the next level, and Tuesday night was quite the coming out party for #29.
-The aforementioned Saad validated Quenneville’s decision to move him back up to the first line with Hossa and Jonathan Toews thanks to his play on Tuesday. He was very good on the penalty kill in place of an ill Michael Frolik, and he racked up three points on the night as well, including the game’s first goal.
-In Dave Bolland’s first game back after missing the last several contests with an upper body injury, he registered an assist and tallied three shots on net in 18:21 of ice time. He also had a good chunk of power play time, spending 3:20 on the ice during man-advantages, but he and the rest of his teammates were stymied in three opportunities.