The Chicago Blackhawks took their opponents' best punch Tuesday night in San Jose and solidified their current standing as top dog in the Western Conference. Getting off the deck to beat the Sharks 5-3 was definitely a welcome sight as the NHL approaches the quarter pole of the 2013 season.
San Jose chose the physical approach against the 'Hawks, though not a dirty one.
The Sharks came out looking to make contact as Andrew Shaw was soon to find out. San Jose also dumped Duncan Keith flat on his back, scoring as the Chicago defenseman was on the bench having some equipment tended to. Possibly Keith saw the writing on the wall and wanted a bit more protection.
San Jose built a 2-0 lead before coach Joel Quenneville called his timeout and the Blackhawks set about getting back into the contest. Thanks to Brandon Saad's first NHL goal and tallies from Shaw and Marcus Kruger, Chicago did just that and started to match the rugged play on the ice.
By the time Jamal Mayers was laid out by Andrew Desjardins midway through the second period, the 'Hawks were well on their way to turning the physical tide. Mayers got a full dose of Desjardins at the Sharks' blue line as he was looking for the puck, went down hard and stayed prone on the ice for a moment before getting up.
Keith quickly engaged Desjardins, drawing 19 minutes of penalties and missing the rest of the second and nearly the first half of the third. Desjardins received a match penalty, ending his night.
In the resulting 4-on-4 time, Jonathan Toews picked the pocket of Douglas Murray and fed Patrick Kane for what would be the game-winner 11:52 into the middle stanza. But let's get back to that hit.
At first glance, Desjardins seems to be doing his best Raffi Torres impersonation on the play. However, I will not be surprised if the league deems the match penalty to be enough of a punishment.
Desjardins rattled Mayers' cage for sure. He set himself up to deliver a big hit. A second look showed that he made a conscious effort to make shoulder-to-shoulder contact. The replay seems to back that up.
Mayers got caught with his head down. The league is going to have to decide if it was a legal check or blind-side hit. I don't think the intent was there that would result in a long suspension for Desjardins.
The hit totals show that Chicago was outhit 23 to 18, but I think several Blackhawks responded to the physical nature of the game. Bryan Bickell was credited with three hits, though I saw at least three more during the proceedings. Bickell picked up an assist on Shaw's goal as well by collecting the puck behind the net.
Keith retaliated with a dropping of the gloves, which I respected. Despite all the time he missed in what was a key stretch of the game, Keith didn't let what looked like a questionable hit at the time go with no response.
The Blackhawks shook off some body blows from San Jose, calmly got back into the thick of a hard-hitting game, and prevailed on the road against their closest competition in the Western Conference. That wasn't always the case a season ago. It sure was fun to watch.