Cubs bring bad luck to the United Center as Blackhawks drop Game 1
CHICAGO -- There was a simple culprit Friday night, and it's hard to believe the Blackhawks didn't see it coming.
The (expletive deleted) Cubs.
The Cubs, losers of two straight first-round playoff series, not to mention the past century, came en masse to the United Center to cheer on the Hawks, thanks to Ryan Dempster's team-bonding idea, and hung out in a lower suite. Blackhawks president John McDonough, the former majordomo of the Cubs' marketing machine, provided personalized jerseys with the Cubs' names. It was a classic marketing move, and a pretty cool one at that. Especially when Carlos Zambrano was whipping his rally towel as the Hawks took a short-lived lead.
It made for good TV and lousy luck. Even without their usual togs, maybe the Cubs' legendary bad mojo rubbed off on the Blackhawks in their playoff opener.
Or maybe Nashville just outplayed its hosts in the all-important third period, turning a 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 win. The final score is misleading because of two empty-net goals, but it's indicative of the way Nashville controlled the final period.
For the past few weeks, this Blackhawks team has been compared to the 2005 White Sox, which overcame a late-season lull to dominate in the postseason. Right sport, wrong team.
Just like the 2008 Cubs, the favored No. 2 seed Hawks came in with a city's worth of expectations and fell short against a No. 7 seed Nashville team content just to be here. The Blackhawks have been looking toward the postseason since the Olympics, just as the Cubs dreamed of playoff baseball for much of that summer. While the Cubs flopped in three, the Blackhawks have plenty of time to right the ship.
"Seven beats a two, you probably don't see that too much," Patrick Kane said. "But I think we're OK. It's one game. I think everyone's excited to be in the playoffs, and I think the biggest thing is getting back on track and worrying about one game at a time here."
The Blackhawks were the fifth higher-ranked team, and second No. 2 seed, to lose their playoff opener, in a wacky start to the NHL postseason.
"I don't believe in upsets in the playoffs," Patrick Sharp said. "Every team that's playing right now deserves to be. Anyone can win on any night."
Anyone can win, especially when one team outshoots the other 13-4 in the third. Nashville tied the game at 1-1 on a fluky, knuckling crossing pass/shot from J.P. Dumont early in the third. The puck started on the right boards and trickled across the ice and bounced inside the post, around Antti Niemi's outstretched right arm.
"That took a funny hop and bounce," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said, as his massive hands suffocated the podium. "Sometimes they go in."
After that, all bets were off. Nashville seemed reinvigorated, while its frustrating defensive style continued to stymie the Blackhawks.
"The second goal was a tough one to give up," Quenneville said. "We had possession and fresh legs and we turned it over in a critical spot."
And the Blackhawks just couldn't answer. A season ticket-holder sent me a message toward the end, accusing Chicago of playing scared. That's not quite right, but that's what it looked like against the bruising Predators. And the Hawks knew it was coming.
Nashville played its typical style, never panicking or losing its composure, and it paid off. That's an effective blueprint to pulling an upset.
"They play a hard game, and they play it simple," Quenneville said. "And they can frustrate you. I think we got a little out of our game when we lost the lead."
Kane, who scored the team's only goal in the second period, agreed.
"We're dominating the first two periods and you're only up 1-0 to show for it," he said. "Sometimes you get a little impatient, and that's something you can work on."
The high-scoring Blackhawks had some chances, especially in the second period, but the only goal came when Kane crashed the net, putting in a Sharp shot that slid under Pekka Rinne's leg pad.
"You circle around the open area and they've got five guys back," Kane said of the Predators' patient style. "So the best thing is to get it into the zone the best way you can. Either dump it in or kick it wide, whatever it may be, and try to get pucks in the net in traffic. That's the way we scored tonight, the puck in the net in traffic, and that's probably the way we have to score on this team."
The first game of a seven-game series is merely the beginning, and this matchup looks like it could slog toward the maximum.
Chicago came in on a relatively hot streak, winning six in a row before losing the regular-season finale in overtime to Detroit, but it rested nearly a week. This loss could be a good thing, given the hype the Blackhawks have been riding this season as the new golden goose of the league. If Nashville didn't have their attention before, it does now.
"One-one and 2-0 is a huge difference," Kane said. "We put ourselves back in it and turn it into a best-of-five if we win on Sunday, and that's what we're looking to do here. You can't worry about the result too much, just worry about playing the right way and trying to find a way to play better against these guys."
That Kane was saying all this with a deliberate, ironic mullet and three horizontal lines shaved into the side of his head didn't make him sound any less serious. He was all business, a mindset the entire team should have Sunday.
It's been a party all season on West Madison Street, as the Blackhawks took the mantle of city champion from a troupe of mediocre to lousy teams. Every game was a celebration of something, be it the present or the past.
There was none of that Friday night; just a hockey game the Blackhawks couldn't win. But there are six more to go, and Sunday looms as the biggest game of the season.
The Blackhawks have some guests coming to that game too. Maybe the White Sox can bring some better luck.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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