Blackhawks topple Penguins in Soldier Field's wintry wonderland
Here are nine quick thoughts after Chicago's 5-1 win over Pittsburgh in the finale of the 2013-14 NHL Stadium Series:
• When NHL execs pitched an expanded outdoor schedule for this season and planted a Pittsburgh-Chicago match at Soldier Field less than a week after the Olympics, their expectations couldn't possibly have exceeded the reality these two teams delivered tonight.
If there was a bounce to be generated after Sochi, this event delivered everything that might hook the casual fan. From the magical snow-globe images to the marquee teams to 17 Olympic heroes, including Team Canada captains Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, this was as thrilling as a 5-1 rout can be.
I'll admit the lousy conditions took me right out of this year's Winter Classic but the challenges of inch-deep snow that coated the sheet at Soldier Field seemed more charming, or at least more visually appealing, than the hard, bouncy ice that plagued the big game at the Big House. Passes left a wake like a cruise ship and skidded to an early halt like that high-tech puck in the Bridgestone ads. Every hard stop sent a sheet of snow cascading into the air. Even the sound of the blades chittering across the ice was different, somehow more exotic. This, finally, was real pond hockey. The elements were an additional player, not an impediment, and the game was better for them.
• Has Jonathan Toews ever looked like he was having more fun than he did tonight? Watch him jump around like a "The Price Is Right" contestant after scoring a goal that's set to become as iconic as Sidney Crosby's shootout winner in the inaugural Winter Classic:
Toews said after the game that he's been trying to lose his Captain Serious nickname for a while. A couple more spontaneous outbursts of joy like that and it's as good as buried.
• Patrick Kane still hasn't shaken the rotten puck luck that sabotaged his trip to Sochi. He rang two chances clean off the posts tonight before finally knifing a pass through a foot of snow, and beyond a diving Rob Scuderi, to Kris Versteeg's tape for an easy tap in. You know it's going to come for him soon, but it's painful to watch this kid right now. At least there were no tears tonight.
• The Penguins need to adopt those sweaters as their full-time roadies asap. Pure greatness.
• The Hawks figured out the secret to this environment pretty quickly: grab the puck, proceed directly to the net and bang away at it until Marc-Andre Fleury's neck turned red. The Penguins tried to play like they were dancing around Consol Energy Center, getting cute with their passes and looking to create the perfect play instead of the simple one. They made adjustments late, but by that point the result was inevitable. Sounds like another team coached recently by Dan Bylsma, doesn't it?
• I'm trying to imagine what the average Vancouver Canuck fan who tuned in just to check out Simon Despres had to be thinking after this one. The defenseman's name has been mentioned as one of the NHL-ready prospects that Pittsburgh might offer in a rumored Ryan Kesler trade, but it's hard to believe anyone would want him after this one. He was repeatedly caught behind the play as the Hawks racked up nine odd-man rushes and accidentally deflected a rebound past Marc-Andre Fleury for Chicago's fifth goal on the night. He's never quite found a comfort level in Dan Bylsma's system and could really use a change of scenery, but you have to wonder if this game will give the Canucks reason to ask for another look at the menu.
• Someday soon, young hockey players will refer to the act of being helplessly burned on defense as being "Orpiked." That is, if it's not happening already. It's hard to grasp how quickly he's fallen, from being considered one of the eight best blueliners in the good ol' USA two months ago, to being turnstiled repeatedly in Sochi to a night like this. The game just looks too fast for him right now.
• I get why the Pens are so high on Kesler--the grit, the consistency, the goal scoring, the idea of going three stars deep at center--but this game reinforced the notion that they'd be better served investing in an upgrade on the blueline. That defense won't stand up to even a reasonably competent offense in a seven-game series the way it's constructed right now. • Loved NBC's North Of Superior-style camerawork. If the elements alone didn't leave you with the impression that you were watching something special, the swooping, gliding lens surely did the trick. There should be an Emmy nomination waiting down the road for whoever was behind that wonder.