If you got a kick out of Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa's wink at the NBC-TV camera during the national anthem Saturday before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Kings, imagine how Hossa's buddies in a bar somewhere in Slovakia felt.
They were the guys who contacted Hossa before the Hawks' efficient 2-1 victory at the United Center hoping he would show his native country a little love if given the opportunity. When it arose pregame during Jim Cornelison's anthem, Hossa did something delightfully out of character for the quiet, consummate professional that reflected how relaxed the Hawks were as a team.
He winked into the lens like a showman he isn't. Blackhawks fans all over the world, apparently, nodded.
- Bio | E-mail | Recent columns
- VIDEO: Video: Tribune's Kuc, Haugh on Game 1 win
- VIDEO: Video: Hawks' Hossa on Game 1 win over Kings
- Game 1 photos: Blackhawks 2, Kings 1
- Video: Hawks goalie Crawford on 2-1 win
- Video: Hawks' Kane on Game 1 win over Kings
United Center, 1901 West Madison Street, Chicago, IL 60612, USA
"A bunch of my friends at home called and said they were going to watch so give them a signal,'' Hossa said with a sheepish grin. "So I gave them one.''
The gesture from Hossa that Chicagoans will remember most came when he scored the winning goal at 16 minutes, 22 seconds of the second period. With the score tied 1-1, Hossa established ideal position in front of Kings goalie Jonathan Quick as the puck slid back to Duncan Keith. Keith unleashed a rocket that Hossa somehow redirected with a well-timed tip past Quick for a 2-1 lead the Hawks made hold up in a tightly played game.
"Obviously it was one of those goals when the puck's going your way, it hits your stick and goes the other way past the goalie,'' Hossa said. "That's how we're going to score, by putting the puck on the net.''
Relentlessly, the Hawks put 17 pucks on the net in the first period compared with just two for the Kings yet still trailed 1-0. Quality of shots on goal trumped quantity. At the 14:23 mark, Kings forward Justin Williams took advantage of a rare Corey Crawford error in clearing the puck to knock in the Kings' lone goal from the slot — and the wind out of a crowd of 21,535.
The Hawks had looked like the best team in hockey for the first 20 minutes, but the team with the best goalie in the league led.
"Fortunate,'' Kings coach Darryl Sutter described his feeling at that point.
The Kings had more than luck on their side. They had Quick, who likes to play high in the crease to cut off angles and uses the glove well enough to make a White Sox infielder envious. Game 1 began as a story of Quick and the dead — which described the Hawks' first 25 shots on goal.
On the 26th with 7:31 left in the second period, Patrick Sharp returned a rebound off Johnny Oduya's shot to beat Quick. Sharp beats Quick; sounds like an instructional guide to boxing jabs as much as the way the Hawks regained momentum.
"When you score that first goal, the crowd gets into it,'' Sharp said.
Indeed, only 4:07 later, Hossa scored. The rest of the way, the Hawks preserved their precious lead with toughness and discipline they will need against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"We did a good job coming back to protect the house,'' Hossa said of the defensive effort.
They killed both Kings power plays, improving to 42 of 43 in the playoffs. They peppered Quick with shots and increased the traffic in front of him. They capitalized on coach Joel Quenneville's adjustments, such as his pesky fourth-line combination of Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger against the Kings' dangerous Anze Kopitar line.
They inflicted more than absorbed punishment against the bigger, reputedly more physical Kings.
"That's the way they play so that was the way we have to play,'' Patrick Kane said. "Fight back for our space.''
The most memorable thud came courtesy of Bolland, who decked Mike Richards late in the third period behind the Kings net loudly enough to make the center groggy. Bolland responded by drawing a key penalty with 1:41 left.
"I think 'Bolly' is progressing in the playoffs,'' Quenneville said.
I think the Hawks combined force with finesse enough to believe they can win this series.
But if Hawks-Red Wings taught us anything, it was that growing season for complacency occurs between Games 1 and 2. The Hawks must treat Sunday night like Saturday afternoon never happened to keep a Kings team — now 1-6 away from home in the playoffs — reeling on the road.
Make no declarations. Avoid predictions. Overstate nothing.
Let them celebrate in Slovakia all they want — it isn't every day a countryman winks to you on TV before scoring a big goal. Back in Chicago, they know the real work has just begun.