It was, first-and-foremost, a purely fascinating study in the art of playoff hockey, all momentum swings and desperation plays, almost two games for the price of one. These were two teams – the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins - presumably aware that whoever drew first blood in the Stanley Cup final would have a significant leg-up in the ultimate outcome.
All the things that sometimes make the NHL must-see TV were on display during Wednesday night's opener, won 4-3 in triple overtime by the Blackhawks over the Bruins, the first Original Six matchup in the Stanley Cup final since 1979 and one that genuinely lived up to its advance billing.
Chicago overcame a two-goal third-period deficit on goals by Dave Bolland and Johnny Oduya a little over four minutes apart midway through the third period and that's when the Madhouse on Madison went completely mad. There were 22,110 spectators crammed into the United Center, hanging on every twist and turn, waiting to see how it would turn out, as the teams ramped it up in overtime, trading chances, forcing the goaltenders to match each other, save for save.
Fatigue eventually took its toll on the aesthetics of the game, but heightened the tension, like two boxers, punchy after a fight that went the distance, but neither giving any quarter.
It was almost Petr Klima time when Michael Rozsival's shot through traffic hit both Bolland and Andrew Shaw and fooled goaltender Tuukka Rask, completing the Blackhawks' improbable comeback and gave them a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. There was 7:52 remaining in the third overtime period when the game ended on shot No. 117 of the night. Suddenly, the two days off between games - Game 2 is set here for Saturday night – seems like a very good idea.
"We basically played two hockey games in one night," said Blackhawks' coach Joel Quenneville, "so we'll basically get some rest tomorrow and get excited about coming in here on Saturday night. We haven't seen that team all year, but judging by the way the game went, we're going to have to be ready."
It was the fifth longest game in Stanley Cup final history and as is usually the case, the winning goal came from one of the supporting parts, Shaw, Chicago's answer to Brad Marchand, someone who tried to rough it up with the Bruins' Zdeno Chara and others throughout the game.
"It's what we needed to do, get guys going to the net," said Shaw. "We knew it wasn't going to be pretty at this point. It's a great shot.... it was unbelievable. All the guys. We deserved this. It was a great battle for us."
According to Quenneville, Shaw is the sort of player, "the bigger the stage, the bigger the challenge, he rises to the occasion. He knows where the front of the net is. It doesn't have to be pretty. He's a warrior. He's one of those guys, you appreciate and love that he's on your side. He's relentless."
For his part, Bruins' coach Claude Julien reminded reporters that the last time the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, they lost the first two games to the Vancouver Canucks, so they're not prepared to wave a white flag of surrender just yet. At different times, Boston was the far better team on the night, early on and then again in the first overtime.
Several Bruins had excellent chances to win it, none better than Kaspars Daugavins, who was denied on a backhand with an empty net by a last-gasp stick check from Oduya.
"It was a grinding game out there for different lines," said the Blackhawks' Patrick Sharp. "It seemed like the third and fourth lines were creating stuff and got a bunch of big goals – none bigger than that one by Shawsy. I think it hit his pants or his shin pads, but who cares at this point?"
Chicago took not one but two penalties in the overtime for too many men on the ice, but managed to kill them both off. Chicago came into the game with an exceptional 94.8 per cent penalty-killing efficiency rating, but gave up one on Boston's first opportunity with the man advantage, which didn't come until the third period.
The Bruins lost forward Nathan Horton to an undisclosed upper body injury in the first overtime. He was replaced in the Bruins' top six by Tyler Seguin, as Julien had to juggle his lines around.
It was a game that tilted heavily Boston's way in the first half and then shifted in Chicago's direction and then turned back the Bruins' way in OT.
"It's never easy to lose a game when you're in the third overtime," said Julien. "I thought in overtime, we got better. We got a little stronger. We had some great looks, some great opportunities and just didn't bury them.
"Eventually, somebody is going to score a goal as fatigue sets in. I'm not disappointed in our effort. There are certain things you're going to want to fix for next game, but as far as the game was concerned, it was hard-fought."
David Kreji continued his strong playoff play for the Bruins, setting up the opening goal, the first of two by Milan Lucic, by rolling off a check from the Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson behind the net and tipping it out front to Horton. Horton shoveled it quickly to Lucic, who buried a shot past goaltender Corey Crawford. It was an elusive move that started a bang-bang play by a line clearly in a zone offensively.
In the first minute of the second period, Krejci was at it again, backing the Chicago defence off on a rush and then dropping the puck for Lucic, who blasted another one past Crawford on the glove side. Lucic had just the seven goals in 46 regular-season games and missed one because he was playing so poorly, Julien felt the need to bench him.
Krejci, meanwhile, now has 23 points, the same number of points he had in 25 games two years ago, which also led the NHL playoffs in scoring.
After Brandon Saad's first of the playoffs had brought the Blackhawks to within a goal, the Bruins restored their two-goal lead on a third-period power play, the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron snapping a shot past Crawford, on a pass from Seguin, putting Boston up two again.
"It was deflating giving up that goal to make it 3-1," said Sharp. "Against a team like Boston, that's not a position you want to be in. But our team has been down before and been resilient all year. It was a huge comeback."
Normally, the Bruins are money in the bank with a two-goal lead, but they couldn't hold on this time. The Blackhawks' comeback started after an innocent turnover by Torey Krug led to Dave Bolland's first of the playoffs, on a nice feed from Shaw. Then they got a little unlucky – a point shot from Oduya deflected off the skate of Andrew Ference past Rask, squaring the game at 3-3 and bringing the crowd back to life and ultimately forcing overtime.
Crawford played almost 66 minutes of shutout hockey after Bergeron's goal, the main reason the Blackhawks were in a position to win it in the third overtime.
"He was huge back there and made a ton of saves, especially in that first overtime," said Sharp. "There were some game savers in there – and that's what we've come to expect from him."
Physically, Sharp said he was "OK right now" but figured the game would exact its toll on both teams on the morning after.
"Game 5 against the Kings was double overtime and it took awhile to recover," said Sharp. "But there's no place we'd rather be than playing hockey in the Stanley Cup finals, so we'll deal with it."