ST. LOUIS – Late in the first overtime Thursday night, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews picked up the puck behind the net, held off St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and skated out front. From just below the right hash marks, he sent a pass across the slot.
Kris Versteeg waited high in the left circle on his forehand. All he had to do was one-time the puck into the gaping net before goalie Ryan Miller could recover, and the Blackhawks would have a 4-3 victory and a 1-0 lead in this first-round playoff series.
Versteeg fired, and …
The shot was blocked. The Blues’ Max Lapierre, who had been pushed into the net by the Blackhawks’ Brandon Saad, stood right on the goal line and stopped it. The play happened so fast, Versteeg’s hands started to rise, then halted.
“It wasn’t a celebration,” Versteeg said. “It was more of a, ‘What the heck just happened?’ My hands kind of went in the air, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Versteeg lost sleep. Something like that can haunt a man after his team goes on to lose in triple overtime and fall behind in the series. “It was a bit of a late bedtime, because you do think about what-ifs,” Versteeg said.
But will this bother the Blackhawks much entering Game 2 on Saturday? Does it matter to them that in NHL history, seven other teams have lost in triple overtime to open the playoffs, and all ended up losing in the first round? Are you kidding me?
“You can kind of spin the game any way you want,” said Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp, whom Miller stoned on a breakaway late in the second OT. “You can go back and look at missed opportunities or what you could have done differently. The bottom line is, they won the first one, and we’ve got a big game tomorrow.”
The Blackhawks have earned the benefit of the doubt. They have proven to us, and more importantly to themselves, that they mean it when they say all the right things – that it was just one loss, even if it felt like two.
These are the defending Stanley Cup champions. They won the Cup in 2010. And though this group has never had to rebound from a triple-OT loss, it has rebounded from plenty.
Four years ago, the Blackhawks lost the opener to the Nashville Predators. They faced 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in their first-round series. They won. They lost the opener of their second-round series with the Vancouver Canucks. They won. And they went on to win it all.
Three years ago, they fell into a 3-0 hole in their first-round series with the Canucks. They came back and tied the series, and they took Game 7 to overtime before falling.
Two years ago, they lost the opener to the Phoenix Coyotes. They faced a 3-1 deficit in their first-round series. They lost. OK, bad example. But stay with me.
Look at last year: They lost their first road game in each series. In the second round against the Detroit Red Wings, they faced a 3-1 series deficit, a 2-1 deficit in the third period of Game 6 and overtime in Game 7. They won. In the final against the Boston Bruins, they faced a 2-1 series deficit. They won. They faced a 2-1 deficit near the end of Game 6, but scored twice in 17 seconds to clinch the Cup.
This team has the same core of the 2010 team, and it has virtually the same roster as last year’s. “We seem to recover,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. “It’s something we can build on.”
The Blackhawks need to be better. They gave up too many chances in the first period of Game 1, even though the Blues did, too. They were outplayed in the third period and coughed up the tying goal with 1:45 remaining in regulation, perhaps because they tried to sit on their 3-2 lead too much.
They have struggled to close out their last three games in St. Louis, for whatever reason. On Oct. 9, the game was tied 2-2 until Alex Steen – the same guy who scored 26 seconds into triple OT on Thursday night – scored the winner with 21.1 seconds left in the third. On Dec. 28, they held a 5-3 lead, then gave up two goals in a span of 1:17 late in the third and lost in a shootout.
But there were positives Thursday night. Toews came back from a shoulder injury and looked like himself, even though he took a pounding – a hard hit from David Backes early in the first period, another one from Ryan Reaves in the second overtime that left him slow to the bench. He had two assists in 32:37 of ice time. Patrick Kane came back from a knee injury wearing a brace and had the puck a lot. He scored on a breakaway after a sweet stretch pass from Toews. He played 28:31. Goalie Corey Crawford was spectacular at times and made 48 saves.
“We’ve come from behind in a lot of other series in the past,” said Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, whose turnover led to the tying goal Thursday night. “I know we’ve got the confidence in the group to be able to turn this around. We still have a good opportunity to win tomorrow. I think if we do that, we’ve done our job here in St. Louis. … If we win tomorrow, we’ll be more than fine.”
Hjalmarsson yawned before he spoke Friday. The Blackhawks seemed tired. They didn’t seem concerned.
“We’re in good shape,” Crawford said. “We’re ready to go. We have that hunger and a little bitter taste. I think we had a chance to win that hockey game being up in the third period, had a bunch of opportunities in overtime. We’re ready to go for Game 2.”