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The tricky part of the Blackhawk game experience is that if they don't play well, the fact that the whole thing peaks before it starts is even more glaring. Jim Cornelison belts out the anthem as the crowd cheers and veterans are honored and everyone is fired up for several minutes before the first puck is even dropped.
Even in the best of circumstances, the actual game is a bit of a come-down. But Sunday's contest, a 6-2 setback, was especially so. Coming in, the archrival Vancouver Canucks had lost two in a row and were determined not to make it three.
Right from the beginning, they had the jump on the Hawks, who were playing their third game in four nights, and they took the lead with a power-play goal six minutes in. Goalie Corey Crawford kept his team in it during the first period, making 15 big saves (the post added one) and eventually Michael Frolik's flukey goal on a fluttering shot from well out near the boards and the blue line tied the score at one.
The level of excitement at the UC skyrocketed back to "anthem" after that one. Folks were certainly happy the Hawks had evened the score, but they were even more excited they had done so with a soft goal against the Canuck's Roberto Luongo.
A sizable segment of hockey fans love to give opposing goalies a hard time - in as profane a fashion as possible. I was more than a little surprised when I first covered high school hockey games 15 years ago - games that are often played late at night because that's when the ice time is cheapest - at the level of vitriol directed at opposing goalies virtually throughout.
It usually starts with fans slowly repeating an elongated version of the player between the pipes' last name ("Lu-onnn-go") until they cap it off with a robust "You suck!" And it's downhill from there.
What is possible at a small rink where high school games are played is more difficult at the cavernous United Center. But one thing that works beautifully even in the biggest sports settings is communicating disdain or affection for a player with "Lou" in his name. When Tiger fans were cheering all-time great second baseman Lou Whitaker, announcers famously reminded fans "They're not saying 'Boo,' they're saying . . . " you know the rest.
For at least 10 minutes after Frolik's goal, fans were bellowing "Lu" and "Boo" in unison every time the puck slid anywhere near the goaltender and loving every second of it. The Hawks had the chance to take advantage of a vulnerable netminder; heck, I think some of the fans could actually sense a scent of blood emanating from the frozen water below.
But the moment passed. The Hawks struggled to generate any especially good scoring chances during the first half of the game. The Canucks took a 3-1 lead midway through the second period, young Hawk Marcus Kruger chipped in a beautiful back-hand rebound to make it 3-2 and give the faithful hope . . . until Jannik Hansen scored the Canucks' only even-strength goal of the evening to stretch the lead back to two all of 43 seconds later. That was the killer.
Luongo is the goalie who back-stopped Canada's gold medal Olympic run in 2010 and he has had plenty of success. But he still tends to fall into slumps (like in the final two games of the Stanley Cup finals last year, when the Canucks blew a 3-2 series lead and lost in seven to Boston), and when he is struggling, he isn't shy about it.
During the finals last year, he made the curious assertion that because he had said lots of nice things about Bruin goalie Tim Thomas, Thomas was obliged to say more nice things about Luongo. Not surprisingly, that didn't happen. Thomas stayed focused on on-ice matters and eventually became the playoff MVP. One would think that Luongo's fragile psyche would have at least relegated him to backup status by now but when the guy is good, he is very good. On Sunday, he eventually stopped 38 of 40 Hawk shots.
As for the rest of the game, a huge highlight happened in the middle of the first period, when the Hawks actually killed Daniel Carcillo's high-sticking penalty. Usually a penalty kill isn't quite such a big deal but given that the Hawks couldn't manage it again despite putting Vancouver on the power play four more times made this one special.
Meanwhile, the Hawks went 0-for-5 on their own power play. The absence of frequent point-man Duncan Keith (out with an injured hand) certainly didn't help but the Canucks were skating without talented defenseman Sami Salo and ultra-pest Alex Burrows (who is also, it must be said, a skilled forward).
It was only one result but it is tough not to attach more than a little extra significance to one bad game against the team that knocked you out of the playoffs the year before and with whom you have built up plenty of bad blood over the past several seasons.
Then again, the Hawks exited the game with an 8-3-3 overall mark, good for first in their division. Earlier in the week, they completed a mini-road trip in which they took three of a possible four points from the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. And after a few more road games in the middle of the coming week, another home game with all its glorious pomp and circumstance is scheduled for Friday at 7:30 versus the Calgary Flames.
Maybe next time the game will live up to the pre-game glitz.
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