CHICAGO – As for just what in the blue hell happened at the United Center on Saturday night, there is a chance no one will ever explain it adequately. What we know is that the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Anaheim Ducks by a score of 5-4 in double overtime, and it may be best to leave it at that. Leave it with Antoine Vermette throwing a fist into the air before he disappeared into a mob of teammates after his game-winner, while the vanquished opposition stared at replay screens and chewed on mouthpieces. Or, go ahead, delve in deeper and enter into a wormhole of swirling madness and improbability, as you cartwheel weightless through a psychedelic hockey journey soundtracked only by Doc Emrick synonyms for passing a puck. Maybe that even sounds kind of great. Lots of things sound great, and then they change you in ways that are horrible and wonderful all at once.
And, oh, the horribly wonderful things that happened in Game 4, before the largest crowd to witness a sporting event in this building. The 22,404 on hand saw one team with a two-goal third period lead. Thirty-seven seconds later, the other team had obliterated that lead and grabbed one of its own. The came a tying goal, then came an overtime shot that hit the crossbar and plunged straight down before bounding away, then came an extra-session breakaway stiffed by a goaltender, then came the shot that the other goalie didn’t see while he was complaining to an official, and then came the score that ended it all, from the guy who didn’t play the last game, the victim of a coach’s bad hunch saving a series and a season, at least until the next electric storm blows through Monday in Anaheim. That’s all.
After four games and five overtimes of the Western Conference finals, it’s two for the Blackhawks and two for the Ducks, and at least two more games to test the capacity of everyone to stand much more of this.
“Got tons left in us,” Chicago goalie Corey Crawford said, and that is precisely what is so terrifying.
Truth be told, nothing was as alarming as the circumstances that greeted Crawford’s club around 10:15 p.m. local time, when the throes of the first overtime began. The Blackhawks had fixed their problems in Game 4, including the problems that weren’t actually problems in the first place. The ill-judged lineup shuffle for Game 3–Vermette and rookie Teuvo Teravainen scratched after a win, in a search for energy that never came–was rectified. Both returned to the ice. The stars who had to act like stars at last produced at a level commensurate with their talent, with Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews scoring for the first time since May 1 and 3, respectively. (“Both those guys had monster games,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.) Others like Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa hummed around the puck at a higher frequency. Everything was going right, for the first time this series. And the Blackhawks were nevertheless one shot away from losing a game in which their best might not have been enough.
The Ducks answered a 3-1 deficit with a quick goal, then another 23 seconds after that. The Blackhawks called their timeout. Anaheim scored 14 seconds later. “The worst timeout I ever called,” Quenneville said. Three tallies in 37 seconds, total. For Anaheim, it continued a story of resolve, of a team soldered together by postseason swoons of the past and unbeatable in regulation during this playoff run. For Chicago, it was a singular meltdown, threatening everything despite everything suddenly seeming OK. That was the end, coming hard.
But that also depended on the Blackhawks allowing themselves to conceive of the end at all. “I guess when it rains it pours, in some moments, especially today for us in the third,” Toews said. “I think a lot of teams wouldn't feel too good about themselves. We did a great job of staying calm, collecting ourselves. It is what it is. You can't change that. You have to move forward.”
Said Keith: “Maybe those types of things happen so many times, like, what are you going to do?”
What, indeed? Well, a Patrick Kane power play goal to tie it, for starters. And then you wade into overtime and wait for deliverance from the man who wasn’t there a couple days earlier.
As Vermette drifted into position for the customary morning skate line rushes Saturday, the veteran center approached teammate Patrick Sharp, who extended a gloved paw into the air. That too was Ver-met, as it were, one forward reciprocating the salutation of another. People in this town might have agreed it some celebration was in order. Shuffling the lineup for Game 3 was tantamount to tinkering for tinkering’s sake from Chicago, and by the morning of Game 4, the Blackhawks returned to the line combos that served them well in their only win of the series to that point. Quenneville, a coach with two Stanley Cups’ worth of benefit of the doubt, did well to recognize a bad bet and reverse course.
Overcoming the sting of that demotion wouldn’t be achieved with the stroke of a pen, though. Vermette rode a bike and lifted weights and watched the Blackhawks slog through a Game 3 loss and stewed just a bit in some acidic juices. “The emotion, it's not a pleasant one,” Vermette said. “As a proud competitor, like anybody else on this team, you want to be part of the team. You think you can help the team. I think that's a natural emotion to get. At the same time (you’re) very supportive of the group.”
He was back on the third line Saturday with Sharp and Teravainen, and that group showed some verve throughout. In fact, Vermette’s linemates almost preempted his heroics, with Teravainen’s glistening outlet pass springing Sharp for a breakaway chance in the first overtime, which was stifled by Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen. No, it would come back to Vermette to end it, a pass from Sharp leading to a shot kicked back to Vermette’s own stick. It was fitting enough he buried the second chance.
“Lucky enough we got it back and put it in,” Vermette said. “[The] emotion, in the corner, it was pretty fun. This is a fun group. We had a good celebration. Hopefully we can do that again.”
That prospect can be viewed a couple different ways, depending on your allegiance and relative blood pressure levels.
A series that promised to be brilliantly asphyxiating is surpassing expectation. Both sides and neither side can lay claim to belief that they will emerge from this intact. The Ducks haven’t been beaten in regulation this postseason. The Blackhawks haven’t lost any of the four overtime games they’ve played. Maybe Anaheim is the unremitting tide wearing away at Chicago atom by atom and there will be nothing left by next week, no matter what happened Saturday. Maybe the Blackhawks had been crammed into a box that was latched shut and sat upon by the Ducks, only to bust out and splinter the thing at last, not to be put back in.
It’s a serial crackling with possibility now, after a night that saw a team rise from the dead in 37 seconds flat, only to be put down by someone who was nowhere to be seen two days earlier. Even the basic inevitabilities of playoff hockey seem not so basic anymore. “One has to lose, one has to win,” Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said, but no one dares say just how or when.