CHICAGO – After talking about how the Chicago Blackhawks needed to pick up their play in the absence of injured captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane did just that on Wednesday night.
His teammates followed suit and the Blackhawks found a way to claw their way back from an early two-goal deficit to defeat the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 at the United Center to stem a vexing three-game losing streak.
Kane, who centered Chicago's top line in place of Toews, tied the game 3-3 in the second before adding a primary assist on the first of two goals by Marian Hossa – whose empty-netter wound up being the game-winner in a frenzied finish.
"I think Kaner had an excellent game," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "When I look back over the season, this game stands out for him … offensively and defensively he had a real purpose. I liked his leadership, as well."
Nick Leddy added a pair of assists while rookies Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger also scored for the Hawks (34-24-7), who moved back into sixth place in the West but now embark on a tough three-game trip to Ottawa, Detroit and St. Louis.
"For sure, we're desperate," Kane said. "We're in kind of the back half of the [Western Conference] to make the playoffs. How could you not be? I think a lot of us knew it was, not a 'must win' game, but a game we should win and a game that we can kind of get ourselves back on track after losing three."
Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith, who assisted on Kruger’s goal late in the first period that cut Toronto’s lead to 3-2, put it even more bluntly.
"We needed it pretty bad," Keith said. "You can just look at the standings and see where everybody's at and see how tight it is. They needed points, too. Lucky for us we got the two."
Lucky for them a couple of strategic changes also paid off, including Quenneville deciding to pull starting goalie Corey Crawford after a first period in which he allowed three goals on 10 shots. Crawford was replaced for the seventh time this season by veteran Ray Emery, who picked up the win by making 23 saves and allowing just Mike Brown’s goal with just under four seconds left in regulation.
Quenneville also changed up his top two defensive pairings for the second and third periods, reuniting Keith with Brent Seabrook and putting Leddy with newly-acquired Johnny Oduya – who along with Seabrook was on the ice for Toronto's first three goals in his Blackhawks debut.
Oduya was much better in the last two periods and Emery was particularly good in the third, when he stopped 16 of 17 shots and got some big plays from teammates to help prevent some prime scoring chances for the Leafs.
"We made some great plays defensively," Emery said of Toronto's late push to tie while down 4-3 with time running out in the third. "[Shaw] backchecking on a 2-on-1 and [Sami Lepisto] making a save in front and guys [just being] really dedicated to playing defense out there. They're a skilled group so it's tough to hold them off the board late in the game like that. We did a good job."
The Hawks must play with that kind of intensity in the remaining 17 games just to make sure they're a part of the playoff picture in the West.
"You can see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as the playoffs are concerned and you can see how tight it is," Emery said. "We can't afford to let anything pass us by."
The Maple Leafs (29-28-7) can only wish they were in the same situation. They’ve gone 1-9-1 in their last 11 games and have lost four straight in a row to drop out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
Jonas Gustavsson (30 saves) started and took the loss. Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur also scored for Toronto – all in the first period. MacArthur's goal made it 3-1, and
at that point, the Leafs were cruising and seemed destined to get a big win. Four unanswered goals later, it was more soul-searching for the guys in blue and white.
"Never would have predicted this at all," said defenseman Luke Schenn, who finished minus-1 with four hits. "You hear of times going into slides a little bit, and dropping maybe a few in a row, and getting out of them. But right now it’s hard to even think of what’s going on. No excuses. We’re just not getting the job done."
It didn't look that way early.
Neither team played well defensively in the first and the result was a total of five goals scored combined – with the Leafs taking a 3-2 lead into the first intermission. Bozak got it started just 59 seconds into the game with his 14th goal, which he scored by stuffing a backhander past Crawford after Lupul blocked a clearing attempt behind the Hawks' net and slipped him a pass.
Shaw knotted it about 10 minutes later with his sixth of the season after winning a puck battle in the corner and zipping a low wrister past Gustavsson to the short side. But a hooking call on Sharp just eight seconds later put Toronto on the power play, and Lupul converted 20 seconds into the advantage by deflecting Phil Kessel’s shot past Crawford at 11:29 for his 25th of the season.
MacArthur pushed the Leafs' lead to 3-1 at 16:53 by potting a long rebound of Mikhail Grabovski's blast, but Kruger's tip of Leddy's slapper from the point gave Chicago new life with just 29.5 seconds to go before the horn sounded to end the period.
"That was a big goal," Keith said. "I guess they're all big goals, but definitely that was a big one to get [us] into it and give us some momentum."
Emery started the second, and the change paid dividends. He helped turn away a couple of early Toronto scoring chances in that period before Kane's game-tying goal at 8:33. After getting his stick on a rebound of a shot by Lepisto, the puck kicked to Andrew Brunette to the right of the crease and he left it for Kane's backhanded whack that lit the red light – his second goal in as many games.
Hossa then gave the Hawks their first lead of the game at 12:06 with his 25th goal. After taking a pass from Kane in the right circle, he muscled his way to the slot while being hooked by Grabovski and fired a low wrister that got between Gustavsson's blocker and pad for Chicago's third straight goal.
Hossa's empty-netter with 16 seconds left made it four unanswered goals -- and turned out to be a big one when Brown finally got a shot past Emery with just under four seconds left in regulation.