ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The opening faceoff was only 15 minutes away and the lines outside Honda Center still wrapped around each corner of the building. Fans wearing Chicago Blackhawks apparel nearly outnumbered those in Anaheim Ducks black and gold.
Inside the arena, the fans buzzed as the top two teams in the Western Conference completed their warm-ups and headed back to the locker rooms.
After each team scored in the opening four minutes, it was difficult to discern which goal generated more noise.
When the Ducks exploded for three goals in the final 5½ minutes to escape with a 4-2 victory, there seemed to be equal part glee and disappointment from those inside the building.
The Blackhawks already have a fervent following across the country, but their record-breaking start and a matchup against the similarly hot Ducks just added to the atmosphere.
“That had a playoff feel right from the outset,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville.
Jonathan Toews noticed it, too. He blocked a shot on an Anaheim power play minutes after the Ducks had taken a 1-0 lead, then scored on a breakaway to knot things up just 3:52 into the game. The building could have easily passed for the United Center with the eruption of cheers for the visitors.
“It’s been pretty exciting with these road games,” Toews said. “Almost half the building is Hawks fans, so it’s pretty exciting to hear the ‘Go Hawks Go’ chant on the road. Not a lot of teams get that, but we’ve got some special fans and people that follow us all over.”
“It’s another game that you’d love to get for your fans on the road that come out and watch you,” he said.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen for those Hawks fans at home and in attendance. Chicago’s lead over the Ducks in the standings has now shrunk to three points, with a difficult three-game homestand coming up during which they will see the defending Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames and the Ducks.
Who knows, nine days from now the Blackhawks could be looking up at Anaheim in the West standings.
“We know they’re right behind us,” said Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith. “We know that they’ve had a great season. They probably haven’t had as much attention as we have this season, but if you look at the standings and look at their record, they’re right behind us.”
The Blackhawks also are aware they’ve played the Ducks twice this season and have yet to record a victory, losing in a shootout in Chicago last month.
“You’ve seen two pretty good games,” Toews said. “We lost one in a shootout and tonight we just made a few mistakes at the end.
“We played good enough to close out that game, we just didn’t put the pucks in the right areas.”