Last February, the Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves in a predicament. With a new head coach, they faced a five game road trip that would essentially make-or-break their season. That road trip began at the United Center in Chicago.
With the help of new addition Chris Kunitz, the Penguins overcame Jonathan Toews' first career helmet trick (and quite possibly last) to defeat the Blackhawks in overtime. Evgeni Malkin's power play goal in extra time gave the Penguins a rocket boost before going 5-0-0 on the road trip.
This year, as the tussle shifted to Mellon Arena, the result was simply flipped.
Chicago earned an overtime win over the Penguins, but in very different fashion as the meeting a year ago. While the Penguins won an offensive shooting contest 5-4, the Blackhawks got superb goaltending from Antti Niemi to walk away a 2-1 victor.
But despite the backwards results, one thing was the same between the two meetings. Sidney Crosby was not on the ice for either of them.
Early in the day, it was announced that the white-hot Penguins captain tweaked his groin in the morning skate and would not be able to play. However, the minor injury is apparently nothing new. "My groin is bothering me a bit. When it's getting worse each day, it's not a good sign," Crosby Said of his injury.
"The last game it was pretty sore. I practiced (Friday) and it didn't feel very good at all. (Saturday) it was probably just as bad so it's something that I wasn't able to shake off."
While it seems like Crosby has a case of the B1H1 Blackhawk Flu, it is best that he sat out to make sure that the injury didn't get any worse.
But even with Crosby out of the lineup, there was still enough star power on both sides that the 17,132 at Mellon Arena could expect to see some fast-paced action and a lot of scoring.
The Blackhawks started the game with back-to-back power play chances, but the biggest play of the game didn't come without some controversy. Matt Cooke, who had just returned from a two-game suspension, railed Duncan Keith on the penalty kill. That didn't sit well with the new 13-year defenseman.
Keith came back up ice and immediately went after an unsuspecting Cooke, and hammered him with a headshot from behind. Although a bit shaken up for a few moments, Cooke got himself back up and back into the play, but not without giving Keith an earful.
For Penguin fans that don't see the Blackhawks a lot, Keith isn't a dirty player. But whether he has a track record or not, he must be suspended by the NHL for a retaliation head shot from behind on a player who had no clue he was coming. While Keith was assessed a two minute minor for interference, a larger penalty is necessary in this case.
Playing four-on-four hockey now, defenseman Brian Campbell brought the puck into the Penguins' zone and fired a shot off the pads of Marc-Andre Fleury. However, the puck took a ricochet right to Marian Hossa, who simply had to poke it past a sprawled out Fleury into an empty net.
While Hossa celebrated the opening goal, Fleury was left to curse his rotten luck.
Mid-way through the period, tempers began to flare, and enforcers Mike Rupp and Ben Eager exchanged pleasantries along the boards. But the Blackhawks would be going back on the power play, as Rupp was given a second minor for roughing.
Despite the fact that the two clubs nearly never see each other, apart from on the nightly highlight reel, the first 15 minutes of action felt like not only a playoff atmosphere, but a playoff atmosphere between two rivals that didn't care for each other at all.
After another successful penalty kill, the Penguins gained some momentum and started getting chances, none better than a shot that Sergei Gonchar blasted off the post over Niemi's right shoulder. But luck wasn't on the side of the black and gold. To borrow a simple quote from Agent 86 Maxwell Smart, "missed it by that much."
The second period saw more of the same. The Penguins dominated on the attack and swarmed around in the Blackhawks' end for the majority of the period. Although they outshot the visitors 17-6 in the period, Niemi had transformed the net into an impenetrable fortress that wasn't falling no matter what the Penguins threw at it.
More tensions rose late in the game, as Colin Fraser and Evgeni Malkin got tied up after a faceoff, with Fraser grabbing Malkin's stick and not letting go. The two tumbled to the ice and swapped a few jabs before each headed to the sin bin.
The crowd was getting restless and wanted to do their part to help the Penguins back into the game.
Although the Blackhawks came out stronger in the 3rd period, the Penguins were also strong. Despite being outshot, that was really no indication of how the period was played. The Penguins hit several more posts and were missing by mere millimeters on chances. But the play was free-flowing with no penalties called.
With less than two minutes left in the game, coach Dan Bylsma called a timeout to draw up a set play for his guys. What he came up with was something that the Blackhawks had never seen, or in fact the Mellon Arena crowd either.
Bylsma sent out Mark Letestu to take the faceoff, a guy who had only arrived in Pittsburgh an hour before the game started as he was an emergency call-up for Crosby. Positioned on the wall all the way across the ice and nearly next to the Blackhawks bench was Jordan Staal, who was determined to make something happen.
Letestu won the draw off expert center John Madden, and got the puck back to Malkin. The 2008 Art Ross Trophy winner fired a puck through traffic, forcing Niemi to make a kick save, but Staal was right there unmarked to smack the rebound home.
And just like that, the two clubs coasted to the finish line, both earning a point.
But all the energy in the building drained out very quickly, as young Blackhawks gunner Kris Versteeg flipped a puck in the paint over the shoulder of Fleury to earn the extra point. Versteeg was in utopia as the Blackhawks escaped from the Steel City with two points.
Although the game ended, the emotions of many in the crowd had not.
The ending left an empty feeling that left much to be desired. While many victories are very hearty and fulfilling, this game was anything but. A sequel is necessary between these two.
Maybe it's the fact that the two teams don't play very often. Maybe it's the fact that for the last several years, the games have been wildly entertaining affairs between two of the most talented teams in the entire league. Or maybe it's just the high anticipation any time Chicago and Pittsburgh meet. That only leaves one thing.
Let's do this again in June.
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