The calendar says October, but the atmosphere reeked of June.
A couple hours after raising a banner that recognized them as champions of a season that ended 98 nights ago in Boston, the Chicago Blackhawks displayed holdover Stanley Cup mettle in dispatching another one of their potential throne-room rivals, the Washington Capitals.
Most of the opening night contest was representative of the skills possessed by the league’s two-times-in-four-years kingpins, unfolding at a breakneck pace and featuring the routinely highlight-worthy stick and skate work from reigning postseason MVP Patrick Kane.
But it was an 86-second stretch late in third period, while clinging to a one-goal before a rapt United Center crowd, that the reigning champs showed—barring chronic injuries or ungodly hangovers—why they’ll remain a smart-money pick to do it all again next summer.
In a five-on-three personnel hole after consecutive whistles for goaltender interference and delay of game, the Blackhawks turned back to the underappreciated lunch-pail acumen that’s been every bit as prevalent during their run as elites as have the toe drags, spins and breakaways.
They dove in front of pucks. They aggressively pursued stick-handlers. And they formed a protective cocoon around goaltender Corey Crawford after each and every one of his money saves.
The only thing that was missing, in fact, were the scraggly playoff beards.
“I guess it’s ironic how that happened, because they have a great power play,” second-year winger Brandon Saad said in a postgame chat on NBC Sports Network, referring to the Capitals’ three previous man-advantage goals. “Our penalty kill had to bear down and Corey Crawford came up big.”
Saad’s just a kid at age 20, so you can forgive his apparent flair for the understatement.
With a snapping glove save on sniper Alex Ovechkin among his lead-insuring saves, Crawford put a stamp on the starting job for which he outdueled Ray Emery last season. He showed evidence of the stability for which he’ll be counted on now that Emery’s gone back to Philadelphia and 40-something Nikolai Khabibulin is the only other line of masked defense behind him.
Three months shy of his own 29th birthday, Crawford played 57 games in each of his first two full seasons with the Blackhawks while posting goals-against averages of 2.30 and 2.72. He took it to another level while appearing in 30 of 48 games in 2012-13, compiling a 1.94 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
Come playoff time he was even better, winning 16 of 23 starts, stopping 93.2 percent of the shots that came his direction and paring the goals-against average down to 1.84—best in the league in the postseason.
If he plays in 2013-14 like the six-year, $36 million goalie Chicago made him in the offseason, go ahead and fit him—and the rest of the boys in front of him—for another ring. Maybe more.
“He's grown up with our organization and he’s earned the ultimate with our group,” said Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. “It was never a question in our mind that we want to commit to him. It’s the most important position we have. We have a lot of faith in his ability.”