Wednesday night's brilliant opening game of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final was nothing short of a masterpiece, a game that lived up to all of the hype heading into the series. This was a clash of two hockey powerhouses that lasted into the early morning hours on Thursday, a marathon that millions of people held on to all the way to the thrilling conclusion in triple overtime.
Yet until midway through the third period, this game followed a very different script.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers both learned the hard way the wrong approach to take to attempt to beat the Boston Bruins, a lesson the Chicago Blackhawks quickly became accustomed to through the opening 40 minutes of the game. The Blackhawks made it a point, early and often, to take the physical attack to the big and bad Bruins in an obvious attempt to get the upperhand early in a series that could prove to be more and more brutal with each passing game.
Yet the focus on the big detracted from the actual mission at hand and while the Blackhawks were skating around launching Bruins players in the boards, Boston eventually took a 2-0 lead and appeared to quickly gain control of the game. The best example of this came on Milan Lucic's goal in the first period, a play sparked when Niklas Hjalmarsson whiffed on a big hit on David Krejci, who quickly moved the puck back to the front of the net to set up the eventual opening goal.
Even after the Blackhawks mounted a spirited counterattack in the second period, the game appeared out of reach.Tuukka Rask locked down in goal and despite an onslaught of shots through the second period and into the third, the Bruins would quickly take a 3-1 lead and appeared ready to coast to an early series lead.
Yet the Blackhawks are not the Penguins and this team is certainly not the Rangers. Joel Quenneville focused his team as the game wore on and the Blackhawks' attack became more and more relentless. Eventually, the heavy pressure from all four lines for Chicago became too much and the costly mistake the Blackhawks needed was made.
Torey Krug had been a hero for much of the postseason yet on Wednesday night it was his gaffe with the puck that set in motion the big comeback for Boston. His errant pass up ice, from half-wall in his own zone, was easily intercepted byAndrew Shaw and carried back into the zone while the Bruins were caught moving up ice in the other direction. Dave Bolland has rarely seen such a wide-open net when he took his shot just a few seconds later.
The game-tying goal could be seen as more fluky than actual skill, yet the hard work for Chicago had paid off. From the moment the Blackhawks went down 2-0 in the game, they outshot the Bruins 31-13 before the end of regulation. Throughout the three overtimes the Bruins actually had the shot advantage, 29-24, yet Chicago was much more in control of the game than Boston from the start of the second overtime on forward.
The Bruins used their deep defense and strong goaltending to frustrate and discombobulate the Penguins, yet the same approach wore thin against the depth the Blackhawks brought to the table. Chicago was the best team in the regular season because of this depth, a team that could be a frighteningly efficient offensive powerhouse when any of the four lines were on the ice -- and this time the Bruins' opponent was backed up by one heck of a goaltender.
To their credit, the Bruins did not wither away and give up after surrendering the two-goal lead, and their counter in the first overtime could certainly been enough to win the game. Corey Crawford played the game of his life on Wednesday, stopping 51-of-54 shots, including all 12 shots from Boston in the first overtime. There were several chances where it appeared the Bruins would score easily, yet Crawford's intense focus and lightning reflexes together built a brilliant performance that rounded out the complete attack the Blackhawks mounted against Boston.
As overtime wore on, that early burst by Boston began to wan. The Bruins backed off and formed a shell around their stellar netminder, attempting to weather the storm while looking for openings to mount a quick counter-strike should the Blackhawks make a mistake. That strategy seemed to be close to paying off, as Chicago was hit for not one but two too-many-men penalties in overtime -- including one in the final minute of the second overtime that nearly resulted in the winning goal.
It was clear that Boston wore down under Chicago's pressure, and it was clear that they had yet to face such a challenge in the prior two rounds against the Penguins and Rangers. The Bruins had control of the game with just eight minutes remaining in regulation yet one simple mistake sparked a game-winning comeback. Despite Chicago's considerable depth, this was still an incredibly well-matched game between the two teams and for a long while it appeared as if Boston was quickly going to take one heck of a surprising lead in the series using the same methods for success as they had against Pittsburgh.
Now, the question remains whether Chicago's depth truly is too much for Boston to handle or whether the Bruins build off what happened in the first 50 minutes of the game rather than the rest. Rask, despite allowing three goals, had truly never been better and this could certainly turn into a showdown between two stellar goaltenders playing at a truly spectacular level. Perhaps this is just the first round in a match between two teams ready to land haymakers at each opportunity, and this time Chicago just happened to have the extra bit of power behind their punch.
Whatever the case, the only hope is that however many games remain in this series can even come close to matching the entertainment level of the first one. Everything we were told about how great this series could be came to pass, and for those of us without a vested interest in the outcome -- here's to six more games just like the first.