It was called a Stanley Cup Final preview, and it took place outdoors. The higher-ups in the NHL had been salivating at this matchup for so long, they made the final installment of their Stadium Series a chance for these two teams to play. In the end, Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks wiped the Soldier Field ice with Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in a matchup of two of the most high-profile players and teams in the league. In that 5-1 win, the Hawks told the rest of the league loud and clear that they were still the team to beat in the Western Conference.
It was just a week ago that Crosby and Toews were teammates on the Canada gold medal winning team. Even more surprising, neither of them played against each other until last night! In the end, Toews got the upper hand not just when it came to their teams, but on the score sheet. Toews scored twice in the snowy weather, while Crosby was stifled by an inspired Blackhawks defense.
The falling snow was a big factor in the first period, making things hard for the players to control the puck and shoot. Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville instructed his team to fire more one-timers in order to generate some offense. It seemed to have worked, because the Blackhawks offense exploded with four different players scoring. Patrick Sharp scored first on a tough angle, ringing off the goal post, followed by the first goal from Toews, who scored an impressive goal, weaving through the Penguins’ defense.
The magic of the Steel Curtain did not work for the Penguins and Marc-Andre Fleury, who wore a football-inspired mask. They were also unable to stop Patrick Kane from notching another assist with Kris Versteeg for the third goal of the game. Minutes later, Bryan Bickell stuffed the puck past Fleury and Toews finished it off. The Penguins were only able to score on an own goal by Brent Seabrook, credited to James Neal. Still, the spirits of Brian Urlacher, Mike Singletary and Dick Butkus were with the Hawks’ defense.
Whatever struggles the Blackhawks were dealing with were thrown out the window. This was a team on a mission. In from over over 60,000 fans and a much larger TV audience, they delivered. An outdoor game is special. An outdoor game in one of the league’s primary markets between two of the most popular franchises in the league demands a solid performance. The Blackhawks did just that As for the Penguins, it’s hard to tell if they just fell flat or the Blackhawks were just better (my money’s on the latter).
Still, the lopsided score cannot mask the magic of the event. Both teams were led out onto the ice by the Chicago-based bagpipe band Shannon Rovers and the Chicago fans added their own touch, cheering along to Jim Cornelison‘s always-rousing rendition of the National Anthem. The Hawks, energized by this atmosphere, played their hearts out and became just the third home team to win an outdoor game (fourth if you count the New York Rangers). Most importantly, they made a statement, declaring they were still the team to beat not just in the West, but in the League.