Chicago fans feast on memorable day
What a day, what a day.
A home-run hat trick from a switching-hitting catcher hovering at the Mendoza line, a Game 7 game-winning goal that didn't win the game and a game-winning (for real this time) overtime tally from an unlikely hero.
It was the kind of day I'd tell my future kids about if I weren't so terrified of having kids, lest they keep me from being able to have days like this. (I know, I know -- talk to my future shrink.)
When the Blackhawks beat the Red Wings on Monday night to tie the series 3-3 and force Game 7, it set up a dream doubleheader Wednesday: Cubs vs. White Sox at Wrigley Field, then Hawks vs. Wings at the United Center.
Heading into Wednesday's matchup, both baseball teams were more eager to talk about the hockey game than their own series.
Said Cubs manager Dale Sveum on Tuesday, "There's not too many times Game 7s come around. Especially being in town at the same time and playing a day game, you have to do everything you can to make that game."
Sox first baseman Paul Konerko added, "Lucky me, I get to go to the game. Hopefully we don't do anything stupid like have an extra-inning game or any rain delays. Let's keep our fingers crossed there."
At first it seemed the weather gods might not cooperate. After a Tuesday afternoon so humid my hair curled itself, thunderstorms rained out Game 2 of the Cubs/Sox series that night and knocked out my power and water. Things didn't look good for a dry Wednesday.
But by 1:20 first pitch, predictions of rain had subsided, making way for a sunny, 75-degree day at the Friendly Confines. The ballpark wasn't nearly as crowded as in years past (a pair of losing records will do that), and the rivalry is lacking the fire it once had (no Michael Barrett or A.J. Pierzynski types to throw haymakers at the dish), but there's still something special about the Crosstown Classic. (Special enough that one man just a few rows down from us chose the occasion to propose to his girlfriend. Said my friend of the proposal: "Nothing says romance like the bottom of the sixth.")
Romeo wasn't the only guy getting caught up in the hype of the North Side-South Side rivalry: Cubs catcher Dioner Navarro had a career day, going deep three times and driving in six runs. Navarro, hitting just .200 entering the day, went deep to left center in the second inning, hit another right-handed homer to left in the fourth and completed the trifecta in the seventh with a left-handed three-run bomb over the right-field bleachers and onto Sheffield Avenue.
Fans didn't throw hats on the field for Navarro -- the catcher did take a curtain call -- but after the game, a 9-3 victory for the Cubs, he did get some special attention from his teammates. Pitcher Matt Garza got him with the shaving cream pie, first baseman Anthony Rizzo soaked him with a Gatorade shower and, as Navarro did his postgame interview, he was pelted by a variety of dugout items, including a pair of water coolers, a softball, some towels and, yes, one hat.
His unlikely home-run hat trick wasn't the only thing that got fans primed for the nightcap of the doubleheader. Before singing the seventh-inning stretch, Blackhawks Hall of Famer Denis Savard reminded Sox and Cubs fans they were united in their love for the Blackhawks and hatred for the Red Wings. And he was proven right as pockets of fans from both sides of town erupted in chants of "Detroit sucks!" whenever someone in a Red Wings T-shirt or jersey walked by.
The Sox lost, but Konerko got his wish. The game was a tidy three hours and nine minutes, giving the players just enough time to shower, meet with the media and head across town for a 7 p.m. puck drop.
Pink from the sun and full from an onion-smothered bison dog, I grabbed the Red Line home, changed from Cubs attire to Blackhawks gear and headed out for my first-ever Game 7.
Just a week ago, it seemed almost assured that the Hawks wouldn't still be playing Wednesday. The Wings had just beaten them for a third straight time and their commanding 3-1 series lead seemed too much to overcome. But the Hawks fought back, winning Games 5 and 6 to tie up the series and set up an epic finale to their long-time Central Division and Western Conference rivalry with the Wings. (Realignment will send Detroit to the Eastern Conference beginning next season.)
From the first note of the stirring National Anthem right through to the goal horn sounding off a Blackhawks overtime victory, the crowd at the United Center was rabid. Moments of silence were few and far between, as every pass, hit and shot warranted an "ooh" or an "ah" and every face-off or attack spurred a chorus of "Let's go Hawks" or "Detroit sucks."
The Blackhawks struck first, sending an already frenzied crowd into all-out euphoria. Early in the second period forward Patrick Sharp finished off a beautiful three-man passing sequence with Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa, giving his team a 1-0 lead.
With the Hawks still clinging to that lead after two periods, fans watched Konerko duel Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija in the traditional between-periods "Shoot the Puck" contest. (Sox won this battle.) It was a brief, but welcome, distraction from the reality of a one-goal lead in Game 7.
Hearts grew even weaker in the third period. Just 26 seconds into the final stanza Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg tied things up with a wide-open look, the result of a sleepwalking Hawks team that came out slow after the break.
The game remained tied for what seemed to be hours, the Blackhawks failing to capitalize on their good chances and Corey Crawford turning away the Wings. After suffering through two elimination games leading up to this Game 7, another one going down to the wire was almost too much for Blackhawks fans to bear.
Jaw clenched, hands clenched and (let's be honest) butt clenched, I watched as the clock ticked down and a sudden-death overtime period loomed. With just 1:47 left in the third Niklas Hjalmarsson sent the United Center into hysterics, burying a slapshot past Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard to give the Hawks a 2-1 lead.
Or so it appeared.
The United Center crowd had already begun singing along to the Hawks' contagious goal song "Chelsea Dagger," when referee Stephen Walkom waved his hands in the air and called no goal.
According to Walkom, Hawks forward Brandon Saad and Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey had gotten tangled up in front of Detroit's bench. Walkom stopped play to assess coincidental roughing penalties, negating the goal. Anyone with a brain between their ears wondered how Saad (who got crushed into the bench then pile-drived into the ice by Quincey) possibly could've been in the wrong on the play, and, more importantly, why an incidental call like that would be made so far away from the action.
Imagine Ryan Gosling is calling to ask you out on a date, but your phone battery dies just as his number appears on your screen. Picture winning a week-long, all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii only to learn you're not eligible because your company is affiliated with the contest. Consider what it might feel like to learn you're getting a $7,000 tax refund only to have your accountant call back and say it's actually $70. Clerical error.
Multiply that by a thousand, and you might understand how it felt to celebrate a Game 7 winning goal against your hated rivals, only to be told it didn't count because of a minor penalty that should have been at least delayed, if not ignored entirely. I believe I said "I hate everyone" (and a few other things not fit for print) over and over again for the final minute and a half of the third and the entire length of intermission.
The Blackhawks and their fans believed they'd already won this game, and now they were forced to try to do it again. Back in the locker room before overtime, Hawks captain Jonathan Toews told his team, "Let's win this 3-1." Amid a shower of boos and cries of "bull----" aimed at the refs, the Hawks took the ice for the overtime session.
Fortunately for the Hawks, their fans and Walkom, who might never have lived down that call had Detroit won, the Blackhawks found the back of the net again. Brent Seabrook's game-winner, a straight-away shot that skipped off Niklas Kronwall's leg just over three and a half minutes into the extra session, finished off an unlikely series comeback for the Blackhawks.
Seabrook, who had been benched earlier in the postseason, said of the tally, his first of the playoffs, "I'm a defenseman, so when I have that much room I usually screw up, trip or fall or something like that. [Coach Joel Quenneville] harps on it all the time -- put pucks on the net, anything can happen."
The extra drama of the no-goal call was crushing at the time but it helped solidify this game as one of the greats; an up-and-down, roller coaster ride of emotion and fervor and skill. There's no doubt the next series against Los Angeles will bring more of the same.
As they filed out of the United Center on Wednesday night, Blackhawks fans began trying out new chants; "LA sucks" and "Beat LA" both had a nice ring to them. That series gets underway in Chicago on Saturday.
And wouldn't you know it, the Cubs will be in Anaheim next Tuesday when the Blackhawks are in LA for Game 3. Sounds like a perfect doubleheader to me. Now if I can just convince the Angels to change that 10 p.m. ET start to a day game ...