Ben Smith (left) did his best in Game 3, but couldn't replace the injured Marian Hossa. (Elise Amendola/AP)
By Sarah Kwak
BOSTON — The surprise came just before the puck dropped in Boston's 2-0 Game 3 win in the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night. After taking warmups, Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa never came back out of the tunnel and onto the ice at TD Garden. He appeared only on the list of scratches, presumably ailing. (Hossa is day-to-day with an upper-body injury, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville later clarified.) He was replaced by winger Ben Smith, who was making his postseason debut and playing in just his second game all year.
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According to the Blackhawks, however, it was only a surprise to those outside their room. Captain Jonathan Toews said the team was aware all day that the man who shares the team scoring lead (7 goals, 15 points) this postseason might not play. They officially made the call just before game time, when Smith was told to get dressed and get warm.
“We were prepared [for potentially losing Hossa],” Chicago winger Patrick Sharp said. “Obviously we want Hoss playing, but if he’s not, we’re confident we can still win games. We have a good, deep team in here. It’s been the key to our success all season. So while it’s tough when you lose a top guy like that, we’ve got plenty of guys to fill in.”
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But losing a player like Hossa isn’t just a matter of plugging a new body in. Smith drew some positive reviews from his teammates for blocking shots and playing well given the circumstances, but he cannot fully replace Hossa, the 34-year-old winger and veteran of 15 seasons and four Stanley Cup finals. Hossa has arguably been Chicago’s most consistently excellent forward during this postseason, and he led the team with 17 shots through the first two games of the series.
The Blackhawks missed his offensive finish and playmaking abilities, and his absence had some sizable effects as Quenneville jumbled his lines and started the game by putting Toews with defensive stalwarts Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger. It seemed like a desperation move to get Toews away from the Bruins’ top defense pair, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. But if Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby couldn't escape the big man in Boston, then Toews shouldn’t expect to, either.
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Boston’s excellent defense has had plenty of experience stymieing snipers. So it’s again little shock that throughout their lineup, the 'Hawks did not find much offensive spark in Game 3. When Boston's Daniel Paille scored early in the second period, it sucked some of the life from those lines, and by the third period, with the Bruins up 2-0, Quenneville looked to abandon his experiment, reconfiguring his lines again, this time putting Sharp and Viktor Stalberg on the ice with Toews.
“It’s always good to shake things up a little bit,” Toews said when asked if he was surprised by his linemates. “Playing against [David] Krejci’s line for the most part with Kruger and Frolik to start the game, I thought we did a good job and kept them in their end for the most part. We’ve just got to find a way to score.”
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It’s something the Blackhawks captain has not been doing all postseason. In 20 games this spring, Toews has just one goal. And in the last six periods, Chicago has scored none. An anemic power play has rendered any special teams advantage moot, and with Boston goalie Tuukka Rask playing solidly, the Blackhawks have begun to look like they’re running out of answers. Though they say that is not the case.
“I don’t think anybody’s really squeezing their stick or worrying about numbers or stats,” Sharp said. “It’s about winning the game now.”
But they won’t be able to do much of that without reviving their scoring touch, and without Hossa on the ice, that will make the Chicago’s climb from its 2-1 deficit that much steeper.