It’s almost humorous now looking back to Nov. 5, when the Blackhawks faced Phoenix for the first time this season. I made fun of the team’s attendance, organizational troubles and a roster filled with castoffs. If someone told me at that time these two teams would meet March 23 tied for the Western Conference points lead heading into what turned out to be the biggest game of the season, the amount of laughter would have given me a heart attack.
Boy, is my face red or what? Luckily, the Blackhawks came out with an effort the fans felt has been lacking over the past couple of weeks and put a two-point gap between them and the Coyotes with two games in hand by shutting out the Desert Dogs 2-0.
Tuesday’s matchup was one of those “tipping-point” games for Blackhawks fans. A loss would have thrown the pessimistic, live-day-to-day ‘Hawks fans over the proverbial ledge and into a “Ohmygodwhathehellarewegonnadonowthecoyotesareaheadofuswesuckwesuckwesuck!” state of mind. The more relaxed fans would have become pessimistic, and those who have seemingly drank the Blackhawks Kool-Aid would have considered a beer or seven.
After the victory — one in which the Blackhawks not only held onto a two-goal lead but received excellent goaltending — I could feel 22,000 people push a collective sigh of relief out the United Center doors. Not only did the Blackhawks need this win to get themselves back on track by beating a quality opponent, the fans needed it so they wouldn’t have to rip their stereo from the dash listening to sports radio on the way to work in the morning.
Rather than a traditional recap, here are some observations from Section 326, Row 12, Seat 11:
- Antti Niemi played stellar in goal. He made 28 saves, many bordering on spectacular. I could sit here and complain about the rebounds he gave up, but his recovery to get himself back in position to make the second save puts that all to rest. With Cristobal Huet mainly a forgotten man since catching the flu, Niemi probably locked down the playoff job Tuesday. Barring a 5.04 GAA over the rest of his starts, Niemi will be manning the crease mid-April and beyond.
- Maybe the knock to the head was exactly what Brent Seabrook needed to pick up his play. Seabrook played physical, made textbook decisions with the puck and saved Niemi in his one moment of vulnerability by keep a loose puck out of the net and preserving the shut out. Poor Vernon Fidder felt the wrath of Seabrook’s return to the lineup. It’s been a hell of a long time Seabrook earned praise from myself and the rest of the blogsphere, but he deserves it now. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come from him.
- The Blackhawks goals from Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa surprised Ilya Bryzgalov with shots he didn’t seem to expect. The way Bryzgalov has played against the ‘Hawks this season, I never would have believed he’d give up goals that could be defined as somewhat weak for a goaltender of his caliber. Kane scored high-glove side with a wrister which flat out beat Bryzgalov, then Hossa fired another wrister five-hole in the slot. Bryzgalov made many much more difficult saves than he would have had to make on those two shots.
- The lead stayed intact, but I wouldn’t show tape of the third period in an attempt to convince an outsider the Blackhawks are a Stanley Cup contender. If the ‘Hawks penalty kill didn’t play so well over the last 20 minutes, I’d be writing about another blown lead. A couple of untimely penalties, defensive scrambles and limited offensive attacks put many fans on the edge of their seats praying the dam wouldn’t break.
The Blackhawks travel to Columbus on Thursday to face a disappointing Blue Jackets team they’ve handled with relative ease this season. ‘Til then…