NEWARK, N.J. -- Low scoring, no penalties, overtime. It sounds like playoffs. Or close to it.
“It did,” Kris Versteeg said after the Chicago Blackhawks' 2-1 shootout win over the New Jersey Devils on Friday. “Yeah, there were no penalties and there was battling all over the ice. You had to battle for every inch. You weren’t going anywhere without getting an extra shot in the face, or a good punch here and there, or a good hit. It was a well-fought game and fair on both sides.”
Versteeg scored the Hawks' only goal with 26 seconds remaining to tie the game before the Hawks won it in the shootout.
“You just turn around and shoot it and hope it goes in,” Versteeg said. “[We got] a fortunate bounce there.”
Jonathan Toews didn’t want to jump on the playoff analogy but agreed the symptoms sure felt like it.
“These games are getting tighter and tighter,” Toews said. “There’s less room to make the pretty plays. Like you saw, we had to find a way to score an ugly one at the end there.”
None of it matters if Antti Niemi doesn’t come up big once again. A rare early barrage against the Hawks had Niemi facing 10 shots in the first six minutes which resulted in the Devils' only goal. He was solid the rest of the way, including in his specialty, the shootout.
“He was great,” Toews said. “Three great shooters come down and get nothing. He’s been clutch for us. Obviously, we have to play better and better in front of him.”
Niemi, some players have said, works on stopping shootout attempts for up to 45 minutes on a given day.
“Having fun after practice, that’s all,” Niemi said. “It’s like a little competition. It pays off.”
“I like the response we’re getting from him,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “He played three games in four nights and it looked like he handled it very well.”
The Hawks' funk seems to be ending, just in time.
“It started in St. Louis,” Versteeg said. “We definitely played better than they did in St. Louis, and I don’t think we really deserved that loss. We took it into the 4-0 win [in Minnesota] and we took it in again tonight. We were down all night, but I thought we played well. Both teams played well. It was really a playoff like game.”
The last time an NHL game was played without a penalty being called was March 2001.
By the time the first TV timeout came around, the Hawks had give up 10 shots. “Too much standing around,” Quenneville said.
The Hawks won the shootout needing only two shooters. If you're wondering, Marian Hossa would have been next.
Niemi got a thrill out of beating Hall of Famer to be, Marty Brodeur. “I didn’t want to think about it too much, but it’s a pretty great thing,” Niemi said.
Niemi is 6-2 in shootouts this season. He has stopped 26 of 32 shooters he’s faced.
The win assured the Hawks no worse than second place in the division. Nashville, with only three games remaining, cannot win the division.