Tuesday May 4th, 2010

CHICAGO -- Redemption is a soothing balm indeed, even in the bruising NHL playoff wars. Kris Versteeg was hearing the catcalls from the stands. The Chicago winger had misfired on a couple of shots early and was pressing for his first goal of the playoffs. It didn't help that his Blackhawks had already been blown out of Game 1 against the Canucks at home Saturday night and were down 2-1 in the second game on Monday. In the second period, Versteeg broke his stick on one shift and dropped it to the ice before skating off. Before the next whistle, two Vancouver passes hit the stick as it lay on the ice, knocking the passes away from their intended targets. The 22,000 fans in the United Center were getting grumpy with their team, and Versteeg was an easy target. Before the linesman could remove the broken stick and before the organist could start playing once the play stopped, a loud fan, acknowledging the passes that were deflected by the stick, yelled, "Hey, Versteeg, best shift you've had all night."

It could have gotten worse, but the 23-year-old left wing got another try. Give him about seven and seven-eighths games worth of mulligans. He earned them in the final two minutes. With the score tied, 2-2, and his team pressing, Versteeg jumped on a loose puck in the slot, just to the left of Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo. Perhaps Versteeg was feeling the tension of the moment, but he fanned on that first shot. "I was going to shoot it," Versteeg said, "but then I saw another lane and double-pumped and lost it. I needed a second chance."

He got it seconds later when Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith fed him a pass in the left circle. This time, Luongo wasn't quite set. As the puck bounced around in front of him, the beleaguered netminder was trying to free himself from Hawks forward Andrew Ladd, who had practically fallen on him without being hit. The Hawks were able to get in Luongo's kitchen all night long, obstructing, bumping and spraying the All-Star whenever they had a chance. With the extra split-second, Versteeg was able to beat him with a quick wrist shot before the goalie could square himself to the shot. With 1:30 left, the Hawks had a 3-2 lead, their first of the series. Patrick Kane added an empty-netter 42 seconds later and the Hawks evened the series at a game apiece with a 4-2 win on home ice.

"I felt good out there all night," Versteeg said, "but the bounces were definitely going against me up to that point. I was just looking for another opportunity. The second time, I just shot it. No waiting, no second thoughts. I just let it go. There was just enough open space and you don't get too many chances like that against such a great goalie. That was a nice comeback for us."

The Hawks needed it. As they did in Saturday's 5-1 victory, the Canucks got off to a quick start, getting goals by Mason Raymond and Mikael Samuelsson in the first 5:02 of the game. On the first goal, the Canucks had two swipes at a rebound, before Raymond popped in to beat Antti Niemi with the first of the night at 1:22. Samuelsson then notched his team-leading eighth goal of the playoffs off a nice pass from Henrik Sedin, while the Canucks enjoyed a two-man advantage. Brent Seabrook cut the lead to 2-1 at 7:40 and that lead held until another Canucks power play in the third period.

With Keith in the box for holding the stick, Patrick Sharp pushed a puck past Alex Edler at the point and sped in on a breakaway. Luongo had stopped a break earlier in the period by poke-checking the puck away from Adam Burish and tried to do it again with Sharp. This time, the Hawks forward pulled the puck quickly to his forehand and slid it past the stick to even the score.

That set the stage for Versteeg's heroics. "Kris is the type of player who can put those other things behind him and come through for you like that," Sharp said. "We needed that from him and we'll probably need more of it before the series is over." This was a real breakthrough for Versteeg, who has netted 20 goals in each of his two full NHL seasons. Last spring, he also struggled at times in the playoffs, when he scored four times and was minus-5 for the postseason. He agreed that this was the biggest and most timely goal of his young career. "Oh, for sure," he said. "Nothing like this. It's a different time of year now. You don't get a lot of second chances, so this was pretty memorable."

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