By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) The playoffs started.
The Blackhawks just didn’t know it yet.
Just minutes after a stunning pregame injury to Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom, the puck was dropped at the United Center and a sold-out crowd was expecting to see the Blackhawks jump all over backup Josh Harding, who they sent to the bench after just 6:45 of ice time Jan. 30.
Instead, the opposite happened.
The Blackhawks failed to dictate the pace of the game for the first 20 minutes and a sloppy period of play gave the Wild a 1-0 lead on a Cal Clutterbuck goal. The Hawks were pushed to the perimeter by the Wild and did not get enough pucks inside or on the net.
“I’m not sure exactly why, but it wasn’t the pace we were accustomed to beginning games,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said.
Fortunately, the Blackhawks’ defense never wavered, allowing them to survive a strange game that included a missing goalie, a stickless goalie and at one point, a blade that fell completely off its skate.
It took a while, but eventually the Blackhawks beat the Wild 2-1 on a fancy rush by three role players that showed off the team’s greatest asset — its depth. Johnny Oduya eyed up and executed a beautiful pass off the boards that just barely cleared the outstretched glove of a leaping Ryan Suter and landed in stride with Viktor Stalberg who slowed down just enough to let Jonas Brodin pass him and clear a lane to the streaking Bryan Bickell. Bickell easily beat Harding to give the Blackhawks the 1-0 series advantage that did not seem so elusive four hours earlier.
Indeed, the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs got off to a strange start when just about 30 minutes before puck drop, Backstrom dropped to his knees and struggled to get up. He seemingly took a harmless shot to the pads, but then awkwardly reached for the rebound before gluing himself to the ice surface. Moments later, he slowly headed to the bench and was helped to the locker room.
Enter the seldom used Josh Harding, who unfortunately is known more for having multiple sclerosis than he is for making saves. Harding hadn’t started a game since Jan. 30, when Andrew Shaw and Jonathan Toews chased him to the bench with two quick goals in the first period.
But instead of putting the pressure on Harding, who was playing without a capable backup, the Blackhawks came out sluggish, sat back and allowed Harding time to get comfortable in the crease despite starting on very short notice.
“Yeah, things changed quickly over there and I don’t know if we felt any different with our approach but we didn’t like our start to the game,” Quenneville said. “We didn’t like our first period.”
The head coach notified his players shortly after warmups about the change in net, but that was not enough time for massive changes. Winger Marian Hossa said that other than some shooting angles they briefly went over on the scouting report, the approach remained the same.
“We came to the dressing room after the first period and we talked about it,” Hossa said. “I think whatever it was, first period of the playoffs, nerves, or I don’t know what, but I felt like in the second period we built on it and were much better.”
And it was Hossa who scored just over two minutes into the second period on an impressive rush with Toews and Patrick Kane.
But anyone expecting the floodgates to open were left waiting. The game featured more oddities than prime scoring chances. At one point, goaltender Corey Crawford lost his stick for over a minute. Later, Wild winger Mike Rupp fell down three times after his skate blade broke.
But as was the case for much of the year, the Blackhawks survived in large part because of their defense and goaltending. Crawford shook off last season’s playoff struggles and came up with some big saves late in the game and in overtime before the Hawks’ third line was able to ice the win. They were the kind of saves he didn’t make a year ago against the Coyotes.
But don’t think the Blackhawks are satisfied. While there’s no doubt they’re the far superior team in this series, Tuesday night’s win was far from a Stanley Cup worthy performance.
“Everybody is patting us on the back. We gotta prove it,” Quenneville said. “That’s where we’re at. I think being satisfied with what we’ve achieved doesn’t do you anything. I think we want to make sure we are looking for bigger goals and that’s playing better each and every game here and picking up the level of intensity.”
Especially against a backup goaltender.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHoge and read more of his columns here.