When the 2016 defending Stanley Cup Champions meets the 2015 Cup Champs, what can you expect? How about One helluva game. And that’s what we got Wednesday night.
Not only did we have a square off of the two best Captains in hockey..Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby versus Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, there was additional star power on both sides. Names like Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin, Duncan Keith, Phil Kessel, Artemi Panarin and Marc-Andre Fleury. They were all good, one in particular, but it was two others whose names are starting to gain momentum that flashed brightest.
Hawk forward Nick Schmaltz was one. On Chicago’s first goal by Kane (25), Schmaltz (who was filling in on the second line due to Artem Anisimov’s first period injury as well as minutes on the first) checked the puck away from Jake Guentzel, tossed the rubber ahead to the defending Art Ross Trophy winner, who fired a shot through the five hole of Marc-Andre Fleury. Schmaltz, who was sent down to Rockford on December 4th to learn more of a two-way game has come back a new and vastly improved teammate. “Whatever he did when he went down to Rockford is incredible,” said Scott Darling, who stopped 36 of 37 shots in the 4-1 win at the United Center. “Came back with a whole new edge and a whole new intensity, and now you’re seeing the results. He’s playing to the full capability.” Schmaltz’s play solidified the first line, which impacted the third line and then the fourth. Now the Hawks have four lines with which to strike or defend.
The Penguins countered with a nifty backhander from Scott Wilson to tie the score at 1 with three minutes left in period two. Time for the first line to get back at it. My vote for most improved player on the Hawks and maybe in the league, Richard Panick, grabbed the puck off the boards, eluded Malkin’s check and drilled the puck high on the Fleury’s right side. 26 seconds were left in the period. 2-1 Chicago.
Then it was Scott Darling and Kaner’s turn. Darling, who registered his 16th win of the season was…..was….was….awesational, superbsome. There has to be some new name put to his performance because he was HUGE in net. Filling in for Corey Crawford, Darling has now established himself as a number one goalie. Question is, where? Chicago or someplace else.
With a little over three minutes remaining, the three runts took over. Panarin, to Schmaltz, to Kane, back to Schmaltz and a buried biscuit from Kane (26). An open netter swept off the boards by a backhander from Kane (27) with 41 seconds left gave Chicago the 4-1 win, Kane another hat trick and the Hawks with their 10th win in the 11. It was a Gongshow for sure. Tough and intense. Both teams played exceptionally well. Kinda of puts you in a thought pattern of what the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals could be. That’s a long way off though.
Up next? The New York Islanders on Friday at the UC. Recently added defenseman Johnny Oduya will be making his return to the Chicago lineup that night. Oduya’s old defensive pairing, Niklas Hjalmarsson is not far off from returning from a back injury. The blue line is now deep, deep, deep in Hawkland. Now the transition will have to take place in getting Oduya up to speed with Chicago’s play. Which shouldn’t take long. NOTE: Reports are now that Oduya will not play until next week as to work on conditioning.
The concern with Wednesday’s win is the injury sustained by Anisimov. Hold you breath and cross your fingers on that one. With the trading deadline passing yesterday a major injury would be a crippler.
Thanks for checking in,
Notes: Chicago is 27-0-0 when scoring four goals or more this season….Richard Panik has 10 points in his last seven games, the longest of his career. And the most amazing number. 406. The consecutive sellouts at the Madhouse