You’ve all likely heard of a team or individual “starting strong” in an athletic event, I’m sure. Well, the 2015 Chicago Blackhawks started strange in their run to a Stanley Cup. Considering the result of their first 20 minutes of postseason action, you couldn’t be blamed thinking this team might be in some trouble.
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Of course, falling behind big to the Nashville Predators turned out to be just a speed bump, but a memorable one at that. And so the first game of the most-recent postseason is next on our countdown of most memorable playoff wins under coach Joel Quenneville.
Note: Check out the previous entries in this series at the end of this post.
No. 11: 2015 Western Conference first round, Game 1
Chicago Blackhawks 4, Nashville Predators 3 (2OT)
So we’re going to get the bad out of the way first, mostly because there’s no avoiding it here. The only guy who was consistently good for Nashville in this series, Colin Wilson, got the scoring going about six minutes in. Brad Richards was unable to hold the puck in Chicago’s offensive zone, and Wilson took off alone facing Michal Rozsival and Duncan Keith. Rozsival took a bizzare route while skating backward, opening up a lane for Wilson. The forward picked up speed, took the lane by storm and fired a shot over Corey Crawford to get Bridgestone Arena rocking early.
It was at this point when I was very worried about Rozsival, but after the first two games of this series, he picked up his level of play tenfold.
The next Predators goal might be what you’d call “not good.” Crawford got stuck behind the net trying to play the puck, as Calle Jarnkrok skated in with a fierce forecheck. No Blackhawks player came to support the goaltender, and the puck squeaked out to Viktor Stalberg for an easy empty-netter and a 2-0 Nashville lead with less than three minutes to play in the first.
Not optimal positioning. (Screenshot from YouTube)
Mike Ribeiro almost scored from the doorstep moments later after a blue-line shot by Seth Jones bounced all over the place, but the play did achieve getting Kimmo Timonen sent to the penalty box for holding Ribeiro.
Nashville would cash in before the period ended, with Jones again firing a puck at the net and seeing it hit traffic. This time, Wilson redirected it through Crawford, and the Preds had a commanding-looking 3-0 lead less than 20 minutes in.
You all know what happened next. Scott Darling came on in relief of Crawford, who wasn’t particularly sharp but who also wasn’t getting much in the way of help from his team. Thankfully, the Blackhawks stepped up their game with Darling in net, and Darling rose to the occasion in his first career playoff game.
Da Windy City
The Blackhawks quickly hopped on the comeback trail in the second period, with Matt Cullen and Marian Hossa both in the box for minor penalties. Jonathan Toews won a puck battle below Pekka Rinne’s crease and slipped the puck to Teuvo Teravainen, who threw a pass into the slot for a streaking Niklas Hjalmarsson. The defenseman hammered home a one-time, angrily swatted aside a stick that had been left on the ice and gave the Blackhawks life less than two minutes into the period.
Nashville would provide some more assistance to the Blackhawks’ comeback bid in the form of bad penalties. Anton Volchenkov (hooking) and Shea Webber (cross-checking) sat in the box as the Blackhawks enacted their patented 5-on-3 passing powerplay. But it worked to perfection this go round, as Patrick Kane threw the puck from below the circle to Rinne’s left to Patrick Sharp on the opposite doorstep. It took two tries, but Sharp snuck a shot around Rinne to cut the Preds’ advantage to one about 8:30 into the middle frame.
While Chicago wouldn’t capitalize on the remainder of that powerplay, they’d cash in on a later one. Mattias Ekholm earned a cross-checking penalty, with less than eight minutes to go, and Kane got things started again on the man advantage. He held the puck above that left circle and threw it down low to Toews, who went in tight and stuffed the puck past Rinne while Andrew Shaw joyously celebrated nearby.
After that awful start, the Blackhawks had crawled back to even in less time than it took for the Predators to tally three goals. Now, we got to settle in for some nerve-racking no scoring.
Shaw’s forechecking abilities almost landed him a goal late in the second, but his backhander was shouldered aside by Rinne. Teuvo then had the first good chance of the third, attempting a slapper off a Marcus Kruger feed. That too was soaked up by Rinne.
Darling then decided he wanted to get in on the fun, so he made a pretty superb save midway through the third. With Hjalmarsson off the ice for slashing, Nashville set up an extra-man attack. Ribeiro sent the puck down low to Wilson. Wilson made a crazy-quick backhand pass to defenseman Ryan Ellis, who was down on the opposite doorstep. It appeared he had a tap-in bid, but Darling flew across the crease and shut it off.
That hurts me just looking at what he did. (Screenshot from YouTube)
Darling had to make a few more crazy saves as the Predators swarmed in the late stages of the third, and he certainly looked good making them. They ensured that we’d see overtime in this contest.
Kris Versteeg and Richards had a nice 2-on-1 chance against Jones and Rinne early in the first overtime, but Jones did a nice job of shutting off the passing lane. Versteeg still tried to throw it over to Richards, and the puck wound up bouncing off the defenseman and in on Rinne, though it was turned aside.
Filip Forsberg responded with a good chance of his own below the circles, but Darling padded that away. Brandon Saad and Kane would have good bids before the first extra 20 ended, and all the while Nashville’s play-by-play TV guy became less and less comprehensible.
Speaking of that guy, he had just finished talking about how this game was the third with two overtimes in Predators history when the Blackhawks decided to end it. Saad and Toews won a board battle down low, kicking the pick to Hossa at the midboards. He sent it back to Keith at the blue line, and the future Conn Smythe winner fired a shot through traffic and into the twine to end this contest about eight minutes into the second extra period.
The win got the Blackhawks off on the right foot in the playoffs when it looked like that’d be far from the case after 20 minutes of play. It also started the legend (I guess) of Darling, who made 42 saves on 42 shots in relief and was the Blackhawks starting goaltender through the rest of this series. It’s true: Without Darling, the Blackhawks might not win the Cup. Just another point in a postseason full of strange ones.
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