CHICAGO – The questions were answered, the critics silenced and the ‘Madhouse’ was revived, if only for the next 72 hours.
After a disastrous pair of games at the Wachovia Center, the Blackhawks knew what they needed to do to capture Game 5 in front of their home fans. Control the tempo, take advantage of special opportunities and win the all-important first 20 minutes of play.
Check, check and check in a 7-4 victory, this time with the help of the big names, those dynamic superstars that have Chicago on the brink of its first Stanley Cup in nearly five decades.
“I thought we had good energy right from the outset,” Head Coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think there was some balance as far as offensive ability, reliability defensively. Kept that pace from start to finish.”
For the first time in the final, Dustin Byfuglien played like the beast that steamrolled through the Western Conference playoffs, not just getting the best of Chris Pronger, but by finally contributing on the score sheet with a pair of goals, two assists and a game high nine hits in just under 19 minutes of ice time.
“Getting down there two games in their building, we had to come back with some fire and just get on them and show them that we weren’t going to quit,” Byfuglien said. “Right from the get-go we just moved our feet and stayed physical.”
The Blackhawks lines, namely whether it was wise to play Jonathan Toews with Patrick Kane, or to split them up like they were at the end of game four, was the big story coming in. And not to give too much credit to Quenneville for doing the absolute obvious, but the break up worked. Kane had his best game of the series with a goal and an assist and Toews set up a power play goal that made it 5-2 in the second period.
Yet, as has been the case all series and all season long, it was Chicago’s depth that helped make the difference, especially over a chaotic first 20 minutes of play.
“The number one thing is the way we played as a team,” Towes said. “When everyone’s working, we’ve got enough skill across four lines to get contributions from everyone, just like the first two games.”
Pronger, who told the media before Game 5 that he was proud of his team’s ability to play tight defensively, was beaten not once, but twice on goals in the middle of a three-goal outburst that opened the floodgates. His night was historically catastrophic, a minus five, including being on the ice for six of the seven goals and in the penalty box for the other.
“I think it was a byproduct of them having the puck a lot of the game,” Pronger said. “They did a good job of getting to the neutral zone and getting the puck in deep. It is what it is.”
If Game 4 was a byproduct of the Blackhawks mistakes, Game 5 was a 180-degree turnaround, this time with the Flyers holding the short end of the stick.
Chicago scored a pair of first period goals in special teams situations, the first, a Brent Seabrook wrist shot from the point happened after Scott Hartnell was called for pulling down Patrick Sharp in open ice. The second, in a delayed penalty six-on-five situation came when Dave Bolland threw a puck out from behind the net, only to have it catch the leg of goaltender Michael Leighton and into the back of the net.
“They out battled us in the first period,” Leighton said. “They earned their goals and that’s what hurt us. For some reason we weren’t ready to play and it cost us the game.”
With 1:45 left in the period, Kris Versteeg made it 3-0 on an end-to-end play with Seabrook and Byfuglien that the Blackhawks have capitalized on all season long. Versteeg took the puck at center ice and beat Pronger to his right side at the blue line before throwing a bouncer past Leighton.
“They got a lot of good bounces to go their way, Pronger said. The first one went off of my shin pad, the second one, well, I don’t know, it’s all on video. It’s all on video.”
Three goals for a club that had been outscored 7-3 in he first period and pair of special teams goals for a club that had been 1-for-10 on the power play seemed to solve what had been ailing the Blackhawks.
Brian Boucher relieved Leighton of his duties after 20 minutes and Peter Laviolette’s club responded immediately when Hartnell scored on a Ville Leino shot that was misplayed by Niemi 32 seconds into the second period.
That’s when Chicago’s dynamic forwards decided to make their presence for the first time in the series.
Andrew Ladd set up Kane in an open ice opportunity after Pronger blocked his initial shot to make it 4-1. And when the former first overall pick drew his defenseive counterpart on a hooking call with his natural speed and quickness, Chicago responded with its best power play effort of the series, a Byfuglien goal in a tic-tac-toe sequence with Sharp and Toews.
“With him on the ice, he’s a big guy,” Kane said. “But we feel we can get around him and make some good plays when he’s on the ice.”
“If we can play like we did against him tonight, it’s going to make it tough on him, we’ll try to make him draw penalties and hopefully score when he’s in the penalty box.”
Niemi was solid, not spectacular with 23 saves and will certainly need to bring more to the table in a potential clincher on Wednesday night. Meanwhile, Laviolette will have to answer questions, not just about his lines and how to get guys like Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Simon Gagne going, but about his goaltender and if he goes with Boucher or Leighton while battling for life for the first time since the second round.
“One thing I’ve learned along the way about the playoffs is that one game is only one game,” Laviolette said. “There’s usually not a carry over effect from game to game.”
“You know, this is just one page of the story. Tonight it was their page. A couple of days off here, we’ll go back to our building where we have had a lot of success. We’ll look to win a hockey game and force a seventh game.”
And the Blackhawks, so close to completing their story, know the last chapter is the hardest one to write.
“We know we need to have our best game of the season in Game 6,” Seabrook said. “We know what they’re capable of on home ice and the fourth win is always the hardest.”