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The first of three home games for the Hawks marked the return of key defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, back from a concussion, while captain and leading goal scorer Jonathan Toews wasn't back from his own—he was sorely missed when the Hawks tumbled to a 5-1 loss in Saint Louis on Tuesday. That loss conjured memories of February's nine-game losing streak along with ugly rumors that another bad result might doom the team's Stanley Cup-winning coach, Joel Quenneville. It seemed only a return to the win column would save him.
Looming large over the game was the massive frame of enforcer John Scott, maybe the most feared fighter in the NHL. He was back on Madison Avenue less than two weeks after being traded to the Rangers for a paltry fifth-round draft pick. At 6'8", Scott is the biggest guy in the league, four inches taller than the tallest Blackhawk. According to hockeyfights.com, which keeps track of these things, he hasn't lost a fight yet, though few risk taking him on these days. A gentle giant popular with his old teammates, it was unthinkable that he'd mar his last appearance at the United Center this season by marring the face of a friend, though it was all anyone could talk about before the game. Tempers did flare, but no one was dumb enough to fight him.
With Scott on the team, the Hawks were threatening physically but too inefficient. Playing against him, the Hawks had the kind of game that's been glimpsing through since they beat the Rangers 4-2 in New York on February 16: a return to the irrepressible offense we saw in the playoffs the last two years.
The Hawks's first shot came just 19 seconds in, Marian Hossa streaking in alone on the right, but Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist saved his team, as he did on a couple of great scoring chances Hossa's line put together in the first minute and a half. The Rangers looked doomed to repeat the disaster they experienced at home last month, when they shipped all four goals in the first ten minutes. But they settled, pushed back, and were rewarded for it with a pretty tally at the end of the first period.
That might have been it for the Hawks team we've seen of late, but for a deflection off the stick of rookie Andrew Shaw, a Chicago prospect who was recalled last night from a three-week stint in the minor leagues. On his first shift, he took a hit to the head from Lundqvist, cutting his eyebrow on the goalie's face mask. But he returned the favor, redirecting a Johnny Oduya shot past the NHL's most-valuable goalie in the second period, tying the score at one and keeping the Hawks in the picture when a Ranger buried a rebound in the third period. More importantly, the Hawks didn't let their heads drop; over and over they hemmed the Rangers deep in their own zone, just like on that first shift.
It paid dividends with seven minutes left, as Hossa's line capitalized against a tired Rangers checking line, the return on their investment one of the sweetest team goals you'll see, pinball passing from Seabrook to Kane to Hossa to Sharp to a gaping net. Reeling, the Rangers let Oduya score his first goal as a Blackhawk a minute later, and a last-gasp riposte didn't even the tally, coming, as it did, after Patrick Kane's empty-net goal.
"They check well and they protect the slot well," a confident Joel Quenneville said after the 4-3 victory, by way of explaining what his team had to overcome to win. "Hopefully you get a favorable bounce, and we got a few." Keep bouncing back like they did tonight, and the Hawks are good enough for a return to the playoffs—they sit in sixth place in the conference. When Toews returns from his concussion, and things are looking better on that front, we'll talk about bringing the Stanley Cup back to Chicago.