Rising above the muck of a lockout-compacted schedule to play gloriously intense hockey in mid-March, the Chicago Blackhawks and Ducks pushed each other to great heights. Their fast-paced, energetic battle Wednesday at Honda Center reinforced their status as the NHL's No. 1 and No 2 teams and kept a franchise-record crowd of 17,610 divided in its loyalties but united in appreciating two outstanding performances.
"My heart rate was up a little for most of the game. It looked to me like a playoff game," Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said, looking worn out by the pace and drama.
Rarely do marquee matchups live up to the hype that precede them. This one did. The Ducks scored three times in the third period to grab an exuberant 4-2 victory and add a string of superlatives to an already excellent season that has thrust them into the role of Stanley Cup contenders a year after they failed to make the playoffs.
"For us we just wanted to try and make a statement game," said winger Bobby Ryan, who tied the score at 2-2 at 14 minutes 33 seconds of the third period by converting the rebound of a flu-ridden but persistent Ryan Getzlaf.
"As well as they've done, we've kind of flown under the radar and it's been great. To go out and beat the team you're chasing for that elusive first place in the Western Conference is a big night for us."
In rallying to win for the 14th time this season, the Ducks extended their point streak to 12 games (9-0-3) and their home winning streak to 13. Only twice this season have the Blackhawks lost a game they led after two periods and on both occasions they were overtaken by the Ducks, who won in a shootout, 3-2, on Feb. 12 in Chicago. The Ducks (22-3-4) are the only team that has beaten the Blackhawks (24-3-3) twice this season.
"Are we really? We'll take that," Ryan said. "The first one was the shootout and that was a heck of a game, too. That's a great hockey team over there. I'm sure we'll see them again."
A rematch in Chicago is set for March 29. A playoff rematch would be even better if it means getting to see the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane play a game-high 25 minutes and 21 seconds, double- and triple-shifted because Marian Hossa joined Patrick Sharp on the sidelines with an upper-body injury. Or see Corey Crawford hold his teammates in the game as the Ducks started fast.
But the Ducks aren't looking ahead to the playoffs. "I think we're where we want to be right now. The hockey's going to get much more competitive finishing out the year here and we're happy with where we're at but we can always keep building to be better," defenseman Cam Fowler said. "They're one of the best teams in the league and we had to fight and claw all night just to come out with the win."
The Ducks struck first, at 1:24 of the first period. Daniel Winnik passed to Luca Sbisa, whose hard shot went just wide of the net and off the end boards. The carom came back to Peter Holland, who beat Crawford from short range.
An interference penalty against Brandon Bollig gave the Ducks a man advantage at 2:56 but the Blackhawks turned it to their benefit. Jonathan Toews blocked a shot in his own zone and skated up ice on a semi-breakaway, with only Getzlaf near him. Toews blew past Getzlaf, drew Jonas Hiller out of the net, and slipped the puck between Hiller's right leg and the left post for his 15th goal.
The pace and crispness carried over into the second period. The Blackhawks cashed in on their second advantage thanks to a series of sharp, quick passes. Kane made the final pass to set up Nick Leddy for a blast that got through a screen created by Viktor Stalberg.
Chicago lost an apparent goal early in the third period when reviews showed Bollig made a distinct kicking motion to propel the puck into the net.
The Ducks, revived after a long lull, tied it on Ryan's goal and went ahead at 15:37 on Teemu Selanne's rising shot from the edge of the right circle, off a pass from Getzlaf.
"The game was on the line and he took over," Ryan said of Getzlaf, who was too ill to speak with reporters afterward.
Sheldon Souray scored into an empty net with the aid of Hiller, capping a night that will be tough to top. But based on their effort Wednesday, the Ducks might very well be capable of even better.