The true value of playoff hockey lies in the sounds.
It's the way the crowd reacts after your player hits an opposing one with so much force any rational judge would hand out three to five years for battery in any other context. It's the way the goal horn pierces your ears even though you know it's coming, and how it overpowers the noise of 20,000 drunks without breaking stride.
In Chicago, it's the way the United Center crowd drowns out the national anthem with the type of applause typically reserved for returning soldiers, or the way the chorus of "Chelsea Dagger" punctuates every bit of success with a chorus that seems to hang in the air for days.
Playoff hockey is defined by commotion, be it sonically, physically or emotionally. It's why the most memorable sound at the United Center for Game 4 of a first-round series between the Blackhawks and Blues was silence.
The moments after the away team scores a go-ahead, third-period goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs brings the type of quiet that drops a pin on your brain. It sticks with you. This is particularly the case when the home team is down 2-1 in the series against one of its most bitter rivals, and when surrendering late-game leads has been the only thing resembling a theme throughout the series.
In Chicago on Wednesday night, the sound of Vladimir Tarasenko's goal 12 minutes into the third resonated like the end of a championship defense. It was that deflating. But if any city should know how quickly the sounds of playoff hockey can change, it's this one. A year ago, the Blackhawks overcame a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Red Wings in the conference semifinals. Later, the 'Hawks scored two goals in 17 seconds to win their second Stanley Cup in four years.
It took a few minutes and a couple different shifts, but eventually the silence at the United Center started to build. It only takes one puck directed at the net, one odd-man rush, one glimmer of hope to change the trajectory of an atmosphere. That's the thing about playoff hockey: it all happens so fast, you barely even have time to wallow in your own self-pity.
It's already hard enough to tell exactly what's happening during the rush of playoff hockey; the puck moves that fast and the momentum swings that violently without even the slightest notice. This is only enhanced when you're seated behind the opposite net like I was for Game 4. You can't really tell what's happening, so you have to go by the sounds.
From silence to a low, undefinable tremor. From nervous hope to primal screams pinged with disappointment. From what-the-hell-is-happening exhilaration to the sound of 20,000 people losing their minds in unison.
I still don't know how Bryan Bickell scored the tying goal in Game 4 to send Blackhawks-Blues to overtime, and I'm not sure if anyone else in my section of the United Center does, either. At some point, the roar started, the horn went off, and my head was covered in beer from an overzealous girl who threw her hands in the air without realizing that $8 Bud Light was hanging in the balance.
It was better that way.
* * *
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
* * *
Blackhawks-Blues was intense before the first puck of the series ever dropped, and five overtime periods have not helped make matters any less chaotic. The Red Wings may be the Blackhawks' historical rival, but it's the Blues who seem to have occupied the mantle as the team 'Hawks fans want to beat the most. St. Louis defeated the Blackhawks in their first three games of the regular season, and Chicago felt like Blues fans celebrated it like a Stanley Cup.
There is nothing the Blues want to do more than dethrone the defending champs. Chicago seems like it would rather miss the postseason entirely than fall to St. Louis.
Game 1 raised the stakes when the Blues tied a game they were trailing the entire way with under two minutes left in the third to force overtime. Chicago and St. Louis battled for a full 20 minutes of overtime without scoring. Then 40 minutes. When the teams came out of the locker room for the third OT session, St. Louis ended it after 26 seconds with a goal from Alexander Steen.
The tension reached another level in Game 2, which played out eerily similar to the series opener. Chicago scored two quick third-period goals to take the lead, but St. Louis would force overtime again with a game-tying goal by Tarasenko with just eight seconds remaining in regulation. The Blues would secure the win five minutes into overtime, but the real story was a pair of dirty hits by the Blackhawks that fueled St. Louis and earned star defenseman Brent Seabrook a three-game suspension.
First, Bryan Bickell inexcusably did this.
Seabrook's hit was even worse.
St. Louis was quick to grab the higher moral ground, which only made Chicago even more eager to win Game 3. That's what happened, thanks to a rare goalie win powered by Corey Crawford. Chicago got the shutout it needed. It made the atmosphere for Game 4 hopeful yet desperate, excited yet reserved.
The Blackhawks had the chance to tie this series up before it heads to St. Louis, or face a 3-1 deficit that would have hung over their heads like a death sentence.
Of course, there was overtime once again. Of course, there were several moments when it seemed like the Blues had the win in their pocket. Luckily for Chicago, Patrick Kane wasn't about to let it happen.
Most consider Jonathan Toews the Blackhawks' leader and best player, but there's no questioning that Kane is the most exciting force on the ice whenever he's in the game. His party boy shenanigans can be seen by anyone with an Internet connection, but the mistakes of his past seem to slip further out of the picture every year. If there's one cure for drunk photos or regrettable late-night tales in a Buffalo cab, it's winning. With 69 more points this season, Kane continues to put his game in the spotlight instead of his personal life.
If Kane didn't end it halfway through overtime to give Chicago a 4-3 win and push the series to 2-2, who knows how the United Center would have sounded as it cleared out on Wednesday night. Kane brought the puck up on an odd-man rush and fired a shot at the net that beat goalie Ryan Miller. He knows how to celebrate, too.
An arena erupted, then a sea of red broke out into the Chicago streets. The Blackhawks weren't about to let those in attendance walk out of the arena without one final victory lap.
In nearly empty United Center, "Chelsea Dagger" kept going. The Blackhawks had overcome the silence, and it was the best sound of the entire night.