PITTSBURGH — Jonathan Toews knows how the Pittsburgh Penguins feel right now. How their bodies ache and their minds are drained. How long the regular season has felt and how daunting the looming climb back to the top is. Toews’ Blackhawks have tried to repeat as Stanley Cup champions three times now. He’s made it all the way to overtime of Game 7 of the conference final, and he’s lost twice in the first round.
There’s a reason no NHL team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. It doesn’t help that the Penguins have been decimated by injuries, with standouts such as Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley on the shelf. But that’s all part of it.
“They’ve had a bit of an injury bug,” Toews said. “Probably the amount of games, the short offseason, those are the things that typically kick in [this time of year]. But obviously they’ve had a successful regular season, they’ll be going back to the playoffs and getting a chance to defend. There’s a lot of guys in that room [that are] comparable to this locker room, that have that experience of knowing what it takes to get back to the playoffs and knowing that’s when the real season begins. Thats’ when everyone really brings everything they’ve got.”
The Hawks have been coasting themselves a bit lately, with the top seed in the Western Conference well in hand. But after a dreadful two games in Florida, they snapped back to attention Wednesday night, scoring four first-period goals in a 5-1 rout of the slumping Penguins. It was Pittsburgh’s fourth straight loss, severely denting its chances of catching Washington for the Presidents’ Trophy.
The two losses in Florida — a 7-0 embarrassment against the Panthers and a come-from-ahead 5-4 overtime loss to the Lightning — were marked by sloppy puck control. The Hawks had no such issues in Pittsburgh, as all four first-period goals were set up by beautiful passing plays.
First, Patrick Kane set up Artemi Panarin’s goal at 3:23 of the first period with a slick, no-look backhanded leave behind the net. The Hawks made it 2-0 when Nick Schmaltz — shortly after springing Toews for a breakaway with a nice pass — found Richard Panik in the slot. It was Panik’s 22nd goal. Kane made another jaw-dropping pass, this one a crafty touch pass to spring Marcus Kruger on a 2-on-1. Kruger kept it and beat Marc-Andre Fleury for his fourth goal of the season and a 3-0 lead. Thirty-eight seconds later, Marian Hossa finished off a 3-on-1 with his 25th goal.
Corey Crawford (31 saves) made it all stand up from there. His best stops were a glove snare of a Justin Schultz blast from the point with one second left in the second period, and a stoning of a Tom Kuhnhackl breakaway early in the third.
Tanner Kero scored on a breakaway at 3:32 of the third to make it 5-0. Kero, pegged as a bottom-six center, has a goal and two assists since getting bumped up to the second line in Tampa. He had a stellar game on Wednesday, with a goal, an assist, a team-high five shots on goal, two blocked shots, and a 5-of-8 mark on faceoffs.
Bryan Rust broke up Crawford’s bid for a shutout with a 4-on-4 goal at 5:46 of the third period.