By Chris Emma-
CHICAGO (CBS) — Amid an eerie silence of the soldout United Center in a second overtime, as the Madhouse on Madison remained largely at a loss for words due to both nerves and fatigue, a lone squeaky voice could be heard.
With the clock reading 12:40 a.m. on Wednesday, a five-year-old in the 300 level up way past his bedtime on a school night let loose what little energy was left in the tank for a rallying cry.
Those weary fans who were still slouched in their seats recharged a bit, springing back to life at the wee hour of Wednesday. They would be rewarded for their admirable patience.
Exactly one minute into the third overtime, Brent Seabrook ripped a shot past the 6-foot-4 frame of Bryan Bickell screening the Predators’ goaltender, Pekka Rinne, and the marathon on Madison ended. At 1:16 a.m., the Blackhawks earned a 3-2 triple-overtime win to take a 3-1 series lead back to Nashville.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played in a game this late,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Ever.”
Fans filling United Center were exhausted into the third overtime. Reporters grew cranky as deadlines passed, one after another. Chicago bars were nearing last call when Seabrook scored, if they weren’t there already.
Now, imagine you’re a Blackhawk or Predator. Hockey is a game that consists of pouring everything into each shift, not knowing which will be the last. Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith took the ice for 56 shifts and a grand total of 46 minutes, 19 seconds. Scott Darling was in a goalie’s crouch for all 101 minutes, making 50 saves on 52 shots.
“I’m excited to go to bed,” Darling said with a smile.
Never doubt the tremendous physical condition of hockey players. Tuesday night’s Game 4 that ended on Wednesday morning is all you need to see, because they kept coming back, running on fumes for each shift and showing no signs of slowing down.
Sudden-death overtime in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is emotionally and physically draining for the fans. It’s a roller coaster that locks you in for hours. So, this begs an important question.
How do the players keep giving their best effort shift after shift after shift?
“It’s definitely draining, but it’s hockey,” said Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad, whose third-period goal came at 10:59 p.m., 2 hours and 17 minutes prior to the game’s next score.
Added Seabrook: “It’s a grind, it’s a battle. It definitely tests you.”
The Stanley Cup can be the most difficult and grueling championship to win in sports. With its inherent randomness, hockey produces such thrilling and dramatic finishes but also provides the ultimate test of endurance. All of this effort is going into a game which can end so suddenly with one break or bounce.
Blackhawks players credited their team training staff for providing the fluids to remain hydrated and fueled. There will be no practice on Wednesday — what would be held mere hours after Seabrook’s goal? — Quenneville confirmed, but Game 5 is Thursday in Nashville.
Who’s to say that won’t go three overtimes, too?
Walking like a zombie up to the postgame podium, Quenneville had enough energy to play coy from detailing potential lineup changes, offering his usual “We’ll see” answer.
Perhaps Predators coach Peter Laviolette best summed up how everyone at United Center felt.
“There are no words after a triple-overtime game,” Laviolette said.
Winning the Stanley Cup is a draining, daunting task. No matter how debilitating each game is, regardless of how many overtimes it takes, that 34.5-pound silver chalice seems weightless when hoisted in the air. It makes it all worth it.
Fatigue becomes a secondary concern when such a prize is at stake.
“That’s what playoff hockey is all about,” Seabrook said.
When the early hours of Wednesday morning arrived and a third overtime began, the Blackhawks and Predators gave their all, playing as if it was their first shift while knowing it could be the last. A five-year-old up way too late on a school night kept cheering. The threat of sudden death kept looming, and a series stood at stake.
Lord Stanley’s prize is worth the fight, no matter how long it takes.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.