Chris Kunitz hits the boards in front of Chicago’s Duncan Keith in the first period of a snowy, frosty game in which visibility and clean ice were at a premium Saturday night at Soldier Field in Chicago.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CHICAGO — It’s entirely possible that these teams will collide again in about three months, and compete for something far more significant than who is The Best Club In A Football Stadium On A Snowy Saturday Night.
But if so, the Penguins have to be hoping that more than just the weather will be different should they run into Chicago in the Stanley Cup final.
For the Blackhawks didn’t just beat them, 5-1, Saturday night at Soldier Field. They dominated the Penguins in virtually every significant aspect of play, from shots on goal (40-32) to faceoffs (39-30).
Chicago not only adapted to the often-snowy conditions faster and better than the Penguins, but were clearly superior at times when the snow and wind weren’t an issue.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if we’d played the game inside or outside, snow or no snow,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “They were better, more prepared to play, whatever the conditions were.
“The first half of the game was a large indication of that. Being in the offensive zone, they executed better getting there. They were that team, and we were not.”
Penguins center Sidney Crosby downplayed the impact of the weather — “It was snowy, but it was like that for both teams” — and said the Blackhawks proved they have come by their reputation as one of the league’s elite teams honestly.
“They’re a good hockey team,” he said, “and they showed it.”
One of the Penguins’ few highlights came at 6:21 of the third period, when James Neal ruined the shutout bid of Chicago goalie Corey Crawford by scoring his 22nd goal this season. That gave Neal a seven-game points streak and goals in five consecutive games.
One catch: Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook actually swatted the puck into his own net, which means Chicago was responsible for all six goals scored in this one.
This game was the Penguins’ next-to-last before the NHL trade deadline, which is 3 p.m. Wednesday.
General manager Ray Shero traditionally is very active around the deadline and, while he hasn’t divulged his intentions for the next few days, appears to be exploring numerous possibilities, from bolstering the depth on defense to upgrading their bottom-six forwards to adding Vancouver center Ryan Kesler, one of the NHL’s top two-way forwards.
Although he is a center, Kesler has some experience on the wing. It’s conceivable the Penguins would deploy him as a replacement for injured top-line right winger Pascal Dupuis for the balance of this season, then shift him back to the middle when Dupuis returns in the fall.
The Canucks, it should be noted, have not committed to trading Kesler, 29, who has a $5 million salary-cap hit and two years remaining on his contract. If it does not receive an acceptable offer before the deadline, Vancouver is expected to make Kesler available in the offseason.
While there is no shortage of clubs interested in dealing for Kesler, Shero often seems to land high-profile players he targets near the deadline. Marian Hossa and Jarome Iginla come immediately to mind.
These days, Hossa plays on Chicago’s first line, but he didn’t have much of a chance Saturday night to be a difference-maker. He logged just four minutes and 18 seconds of ice time before absorbing a hit from Penguins winger Craig Adams that knocked him out of the game with an unspecified injury.
Even without Hossa, who leads the Blackhawks with three short-handed goals, Chicago was able to kill all six of the Penguins’ chances with the extra man.
That’s no small feat, considering that the Penguins entered the game with the league’s top-rated power play.
“I thought our penalty-killing was outstanding,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.
The snow was particularly heavy in the first period, when Patrick Sharp of Chicago got the only goal. Blackhawks forwards Jonathan Toews and Kris Versteeg scored in the second period and, after Neal countered for the Penguins, Bryan Bickell and Toews beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Blackhawks their margin of victory.
The Penguins, who were coming off consecutive shootouts losses to the New York Rangers and Montreal, have gone three games in a row without a victory for the third time this season.
They are 40-16-4 and still have a solid lead over second-place Boston in the Eastern Conference, but seem intent on pulling out of their skid before it becomes an issue.
“It’s not good,” Crosby said. “We definitely have to be better. You can’t accept losing. You don’t want to let this keep going.”
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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