One of the things I was most excited for when I started this project was the possibility of bringing rare events to the pages of Game Time. After all, the Winter Classic is the rare event that spurred this innovation, so it would only make sense if there were more to share.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the games I’ve reported on have been rather tame. No penalty shots. No 10-goal outbursts. No line brawls. But then, finally, on a Saturday in December right as the weather started to turn cold, I was witness to one of the gems in the crown of NHL rarities – the emergency backup goalie.
Blackhawks starting goaltender Corey Crawford went down with appendicitis in Philadelphia on Dec. 3, and Game Time was there for the aftermath. Though my hopes for the glorious return of Ilya Bryzgalov were quickly dashed, a guy who played club hockey at Temple turned out to be entertainment enough.
Chicago Sun-Times reporter Mark Lazerus was the first person to create the “Blackhawks Legend Eric Semborski” hashtag, and while it may not have taken off, it amused the hell out of me. Lazerus spent part of that game on the phone with Chris Mason, the former and future (alumni game edition) Blues goalie who was the last NHL netminder to go down with appendicitis. It should be noted, mostly for my own ego, that the tip came straight from my mouth. Don’t let anyone tell you that Game Time doesn’t shape the news.
Eric Semborski aside, the familiarity between the Blues and the Blackhawks runs deep. If you haven’t watched Chicago much this year, however, you may notice some cracks beginning to form in the armor that may not have existed in previous years. While the Blackhawks currently sit six points ahead of the Blues, they’re piecing it together, to some extent, with black magic and duct tape, and one of those is sure to run out sooner or later.
Some of those cracks come from the realities of roster turnover in a league with a hard salary cap. This year’s Winter Classic marks the fifth (!!!) time the Blackhawks have played in an outdoor game, and yet a significant part of the roster has never appeared in one. Eight players – Michal Kempny, Nick Schmaltz, Richard Panik, Ryan Hartman, Gustav Forsling, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tyler “Not Jason” Motte and the erstwhile Jordin Tootoo – will be throwing on the outdoor sweater for the first time in the NHL. Look for them to ham it up on TV.
One of the biggest criticisms that Chicago fans have had of Joel Quenneville this year surrounds his apparent inability or unwillingness to commit to his younger players on defense.
Indeed, on this day, Michal Kempny was already losing shifts to Duncan Keith by the middle of the first period. While it can be tempting to turn to reliable stalwarts, it can also be an excellent way to run veteran players into the ground in December while stifling the growth of younger players that you’ll eventually need to rely on.
With Corey Crawford still recovering from his appendicitis, though back on the ice, Chicago native Scott Darling has been forced to carry the load. While largely a reliable backup, he does display some holes in his game that will likely prevent him from taking the next step.
Darling, like Jake Allen, seems to have an unfortunate tendency to find himself off his angle and not square to the puck. Whereas Allen seems to create this problem by poor alignment, Darling’s issue seems to be more with following the play too far as it orbits the net. His push from post to post is both delayed and exaggerated, and in one unfortunate and bizarre sequence, he nearly followed Flyers forward Travis Konecny all the way around the net before he whiffed on a beautiful scoring chance.
The Flyers, noticing these problems and made a concerted effort to pour on offense from high in the zone. The Blues would do well to mimic this approach as Philadephia defenseman Ivan Provorov scored two goals in 31 seconds off of point shots that could have been handled. Colton Parayko, still searching for his first goal of the season, would be well advised to take the green light and rip any shot available, provided he can prevent his stick from exploding.
The Blackhawks also found themselves in consistent penalty trouble. They seemed to struggle with routine line changes in a way that Blues fans can sympathize with, and they were saddled with a too many men penalty in the first period. Later, as they were attempting to mount a comeback, Hinostroza committed an offensive zone penalty that put the Flyers on a man advantage through the end of the game and sealed the end result.
It’s hard for any team to play in a regular rhythm during a day game where their starting goalie is suddenly ill and in an arena where they rarely play. The Blackhawks remain at the top of the Central Division, and reports of their death may have been premature. Still, when I watch this Chicago team, it certainly doesn’t carry the shock, the awe or the fear factor of teams past. Maybe all it took was getting over the hump last spring for the invulnerable enemy to become mortal once more.