The Chicago Blackhawks used the national spotlight of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Soldier Field in Chicago to send a message to the rest of the NHL via a 5-1 thrashing of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The first NHL game ever played at the stadium was quite ugly, both because of the shovel crews that consistently had to remove snow from the ice and the action itself.
Chicago's Corey Crawford took advantage of a strong showing from the defenders in front of him and saved 31 of 32 shots, while Penguins goal keeper Marc-Andre Fleury was overwhelmed and still managed to save 35 shots.
Fleury himself told the media afterward that the conditions had nothing to do with the loss, via Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
Fleury on the conditions: "It was the same for both teams. That’s no reason for us to lose 5-1"— Chris Adamski (@C_AdamskiTrib) March 2, 2014
Neither team scored on a combined nine power plays, but Chicago emerged with a 40-32 advantage in shots on goal—a misleading stat considering Pittsburgh did not take a period advantage in the category until the Chicago defense pulled up with the game decided in the third period.
Team captains Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews met for the first time head-to-head since leading Canada to a gold medal in Sochi, Russia at the 2014 Winter Olympics, and two could not have played more differently.
Crosby took just three shots on goal in a quiet performance, while Toews took seven and found the back of the net twice. Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Bryan Bickell also got in on the action for Chicago, while only James Neal managed to break through the Blackhawks' defense for a late goal.
Things got out of hand early, as Sharp scored his beauty of a goal at the 15:35 mark of the first period. No description does the amount of skill necessary to score in Sharp's manner justice, but the goal is worthy of rave reviews as the Blackhawks took a 1-0 lead.
Interestingly enough, Chicago jumped out to a 14-5 shots advantage and a 15-5 faceoff advantage after one period despite losing 16-year NHL veteran Marian Hossa to an upper-body injury, according to Adamski:
Marian Hossa (upper-body injury) will not return to the game, Blackhawks announce— Chris Adamski (@C_AdamskiTrib) March 2, 2014
The first period was certainly a sign of things to come.
There was no response by Pittsburgh in the second period. While they were only hit with two penalties, the Penguins yet again could simply not maneuver properly around Chicago's suffocating defense.
Chicago did not share those same issues. In fact, when all was said and done in the third period, the game was already in hand.
Toews found the back of the net to make it 2-0, while Kris Versteeg followed that up a bit later with a goal of his own via assists from Patrick Kane and Michal Handzus to essentially finish the game with one period to go.
Toews' goal in particular was also a beauty, and Bruce Arthur of the National Post and K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune were quick to weigh in on the goal:
The goal Jonathan Toews just scored through the snow in Chicago should count for three— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) March 2, 2014
That Jonathan Toews goal looked like a Derrick Rose coast-to-coast drive, for those who remember. Blackhawks 2, Penguins 0.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) March 2, 2014
But Chicago was far from done.
While Neal did well to get the Penguins on the board with an unassisted goal to make it 1-3, Bryan Bickell wasted little time extending the lead again thanks to assists from Brandon Saad and Michal Rozsival.
The goal had to be a memorable moment for Bickell as he was able to deliver after not seeing much of the ice as of late:
Shoveling crew has already logged more ice time than Bryan Bickell in the last month; 11:14 left opening period.— Joe Aguilar (@JoeAguilar64) March 2, 2014
Toews then got on the board late with an assist from Sharp to leave no shred of a doubt about the outcome.
Key Player Grades
Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks: A
As the man who got the party started in Chicago with his goal via an assist from Toews (more on him in a bit), Sharp had himself quite the game overall.
Sharp took five total shots on goal in the overall sound effort. Perhaps most importantly outside of the big win, Sharp became the first in franchise history to score a goal at Soldier Field, according to Joe Aguilar of the Daily Herald:
It's wonderful to be Patrick Sharp. The guy who has it all just became the first Blackhawk to score at Soldier Field.— Joe Aguilar (@JoeAguilar64) March 2, 2014
James Neal, Pittsburgh Penguins: B
Neal was essentially the lone bright spot for the Penguins on the night. While Crosby and others seemingly struggled, Neal showed up and had an overall nice outing before getting on the board in the third period.
There is not much good to take away from the loss, but Neal's continued productivity is something to monitor down the stretch.
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: A
Fresh off a solid outing in Sochi, Toews had a strong night and capped it off with a score in the middle of the second period to put the game out of reach.
Toews had told reporters a few days before the game that he hoped momentum from the Winter Games would translate to NHL play, as captured by Rafer Weigel of ABC7:
Jonathan Toews wants "to use the confidence that" he built after winning gold to propel his team on a Stanley Cup run pic.twitter.com/n7ROefp9qI— Rafer Weigel (@RaferWeigel) February 26, 2014
Mission accomplished for Toews and the Blackhawks.