For the Chicago Blackhawks, Sunday’s game was more than just a victory that ensures they will advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Rather, it was a testament to the way GM Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville have constructed the team, and a startling reminder to the rest of the NHL that the defending champions aren’t going to go down without a fight.
This team, which for some reason still is questioned whenever they face adversity, went down 2-0 to a Blues team that seemed to have all the momentum in the series. Two straight overtime wins, a suspended Brent Seabrook, and young dynamos like Vladimir Tarasenko and TJ Oshie all were factors that could have crippled a team, but the Blackhawks aren’t just any team, and they went about proving for the rest of the series that they shouldn’t be underestimated.
Their Game 3 victory started the ball rolling, with Jonathan Toews netting a goal in the early stages and goaltender Corey Crawford making sure that it stood up. The Game 4 triumph saw similar performances, as Patrick Kane’s two goals, including the overtime winner, tied the series up and sent it to St. Louis for a pivotal Game 5. There, Toews once again loomed large as the hero, scoring on a breakaway to set up the Game 6 showdown that would ultimately allow the Hawks to advance.
Sunday’s game didn’t start out easily for the defending champions, but then again, what about this series has been easy for the Hawks? The Blues tied things up at 1-1 late in the second period when Oshie flipped a goal between Crawford’s leg pads, and the Blues seized the momentum in a big way, going on three power plays in the second period. Overall in the frame, the Blues outshot the Blackhawks 17-3, but they weren’t able to score any goals, as the defense prevented many high quality opportunities and Crawford stopped the rest of them in net.
As the two teams walked out of the dressing room to begin the third period, fans could almost sense that something big was about to happen. With the crowd barely settling down into their seats at the United Center, Toews gave them reason to stand back up as he scored a gorgeous wrist shot goal from the slot to make it a 2-1 game. With the fans barely back in their seats, Patrick Sharp drew them out yet again, scoring on a breakaway goal (and taking a stick to the face in the process) that made it a 3-1 game, and from there, the rout was on.
Andrew Shaw added a deflected goal to make it 4-1, and Duncan Keith sank the final dagger into the Blues’ collective heart as he batted a puck out of midair on the rush to make it a 5-1 game. As the final horn sounded, all the Blues could do was stand on their half of the ice shell-shocked while the Hawks celebrated their fifth consecutive series victory.
While the concept of momentum may be an overrated one, it’s hard to imagine that the impact from Chicago’s third period performance on Sunday will be anything but positive. The team came out for the frame determined to dominate the proceedings, and that’s exactly what they did. Out of all of the periods of hockey that either team played in the series, the Hawks’ third period on Sunday was by far the best, and by far the scariest.
It served not only as a message to the Blues, but also to the rest of the Western Conference, that the Blackhawks have the resiliency and the experience to compete at the highest level, and no matter which team has home ice advantage, the road to the Stanley Cup still goes through Chicago.