ST. LOUIS – The Blackhawks are fully aware of their reputation in many corners of the NHL.
They’re a whole lot fast but a little bit small.
They’re a whole lot skilled but a little bit soft.
They’re a whole lot sizzle but a little bit steak.
If Sunday’s 2-0 win against the St. Louis Blues was any indication, that simplified perception of the Hawks is a whole lot of garbage. The Hawks (32-5-4) won for the seventh time in the past eight games and remained atop the NHL standings with 68 points.
The Hawks might not start too many fights, but they’re more than willing to finish them. You push them, and they’ll push back, and they’ll punch in a few goals for good measure.
“I think the other team, against us, they see that we’ve got skill players,” Hawks forward Michael Frolik said after the game as he caught his breath in the visitors’ locker room at the Scottrade Center. “So they try to play physical against us.
“But I think we showed today that we can be physical, too. We’ve got some big guys, too.”
Frolik stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 198 pounds, but he played like one of the big guys against the Blues. He tallied four hits to lead the Hawks, while rookie Brandon Saad added three, and veterans Brent Seabrook and Dave Bolland added two apiece.
An electric atmosphere greeted the Hawks and Blues as they faced off before lunchtime. Thousands of red-clad Hawks fans mixed in with thousands of blue-clad Blues fans (duh), and both groups tested their vocal chords with competing chants as players warmed up.
First came the Zambonis. Then came a time machine.
A hard-hitting start called to mind Blackhawks-Blues games from a couple of decades past.
Those were the games that I most cherished as a kid growing up in the Show-Me State.
Both teams featured bare-knuckled brutes with ugly games and ugly names: Garth Butcher. Stu Grimson. Mike Peluso. Kelly Chase. Bob Probert. Tony Twist. The list went on and on.
By the way, I apologize to the old-time hockey players whom I failed to mention on that list. Please don’t punch me in the back of the head.
Anyway, a first-period melee offered a flashback to those times.
It started when Hawks forward Andrew Shaw was slammed from behind by Blues center Patrik Berglund. Shaw, a mighty mite listed at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, regained his footing only to absorb a right forearm from Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
Suddenly, a sellout crowd was treated to a show of Boxing on Ice.
Players littered gloves and sticks. Bodies piled on top of bodies. Fans roared their approval.
Appropriately, U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” blared from the speakers during the fracas. Amazingly, only two penalties were called, and everyone else returned to their benches.
Although that was the physical highlight, it was far from the only altercation.
Earlier in the game, Bolland hammered Blues center Vladimir Sobotka from behind with a dangerous hit in front of the boards that drew a two-minute penalty. That followed Bolland’s angry slash above Sobotka’s ankle, which followed Sobotka’s forceful hit that drilled Bolland into the boards several minutes earlier.
Hawks enforcer Brandon Bollig punched the glass on the visitors’ penalty box when the door wasn’t ready for his arrival after his slashing penalty, but he didn’t punch any Blues. Meanwhile, Blues captain David Backes sidelined Hawks captain Jonathan Toews for a few minutes after a hard hit, but Toews returned for the start of the second period.
“Of course, there’s going to be some frustration sometimes when you need to step up and defend yourself or defend your teammate,” Toews said. “But for the most part, we did a good job of staying out of the stuff that happens after the whistles.”
Toews is right. Hard-nosed hockey is great fun, but the Hawks are at their best when they’re able to find open ice and show off their skills.
However, come the postseason, expect heavy doses of the ugly stuff.
Referees will condone physical play by swallowing their whistles, figuratively speaking. Players will take advantage by trying to knock out opponents’ teeth, literally speaking.
Consider Sunday’s black-and-Blues matchup as a primer for what lies ahead.
The Hawks look like they will be prepared.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.