Marian Hossa looked skyward, raised his arms and thanked the hockey Gods. He had found his scoring touch after 26 long days and eight frustrating games.
It was Hossa’s goal late in the second period that sparked his team‘s offence because 28 seconds later fourth-liner Ben Eager added another to push the Blackhawks to a 2-1 victory and 2-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup final on Monday.
“It bugged me definitely that the goals were not going in for me,” said Hossa, whose team has won seven in row. “I was trying to create offence, either passing, but when I'm shooting the puck it didn't want to get in. I tried not to get frustrated, but it's in your head, you know.
“I was waiting for a garbage goal and hopefully now our line keeps going offensively better and better.”
Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Troy Brouwer have accounted for four of Chicago’s eight goals in the series so far.
But if anybody knows that winning the first two games at home in the Stanley Cup final does not guarantee the championship, it is Hossa. This is his third consecutive trip to the final after being shutout in journeys with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 and the Detroit Red Wings last spring. Detroit had a 2-0 lead, only to lose the next four of five games.
Deja-vu for Hossa
“I don't like [to] go in the past, but it’s the same situation,” Hossa said. “Everybody knows how good things are going right now winning both games at home. It's really great for the confidence and really good for momentum.
“[But] going into their building it's going to be really important how we start Game 3. And that's going to be one of the most important games we play this year, definitely.”
Hossa, 31, played well defensively for the Blackhawks in the previous three rounds, but scored only twice. When the 2010 Stanley Cup final opened its doors he was the best player on the ice with a two-assist effort in Chicago’s wild 6-5 victory on Saturday and continued the solid play in Game 2.
But he shared the spotlight with a handful of his teammates in a game that was contested on a poor ice surface as evident by the number of bouncing pucks. Eager scored his first playoff goal since May 2, 2009. Chicago goalie Antti Niemi was brilliant. Unheralded defenceman Brent Sopel was noticeable in the last couple of minutes.
He helped make sure that the Flyers didn’t get the equalizer after Simon Gagne scored early in the third period to make the last 14 minutes and 40 seconds full of anxiety for the Blackhawks and the capacity crowd of 22,275 fans.
Niemi is authoring quite an unexpected story. Just eight months ago, he was engaged in a battle with Corey Crawford for the backup position to Cristobal Huet. But his confidence grew as the season got old. Now with the Blackhawks two games away from ending a 49-year Stanley Cup dry spell, the Finn could become the first goalie to go from Zamboni driver to NHL champion in a few years.
Niemi able to bounce back
While he was tending goal for a division 2 team in suburban Helsinki, Niemi resurfaced the ice before and after practice. He finally got a chance to move up to the SM-Liiga with the Lahti Pelicans and his Chicago-based agent Bill Zito later convinced then Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon to sign his client.
The 26-year-old Niemi has been excellent in his first foray in the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially bouncing back from poor outings. He made 32 saves in Game 2, and 29 in the final 40 minutes, after yielding five on 32 shots in the series opener.
“It's a great thing that it's been that way,” said Niemi, when asked about his ability to bounce back. “I want to keep it that way later too. But maybe it comes out of how I feel after the bad game or game allowing five or four goals. I don't know how it happens.”
The Blackhawks faithful sure appreciated his performance on Monday. They chanted his name after the game.
“It's an unbelievable feeling how the people react to our game,” he said.
The Flyers certainly exhibited in the second and third periods that they can carry the play against the favoured Blackhawks. But on the Hossa goal, nobody got to the sideboards to chip out the clearing attempt by Flyers defenceman Lukas Krajicek and then Krajicek was soft in allowing Hossa to get to his rebound.
Meanwhile, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville pushed the right button when he moved up Eager alongside first-line forwards Jonathan Toews and Dustin Byfuglien for the game winner on the next shift after Hossa’s key marker.