Hockey fans watch the Chicago Blackhawks face the Pittsburgh Penguins as snow falls during the first period of an NHL Stadium Series hockey game at Soldier Field on Saturday, March 1, 2014, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
CHICAGO - The swirling snow came down in waves, dancing around the upper deck before eventually descending to the temporary ice rink in the middle of a football field.
Playing in a winter wonderland, Jonathan Toews showed his two-way game is perfect for any conditions.
Toews had two goals and an assist at a picturesque Soldier Field, and the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 on Saturday night in the finale of the NHL Stadium Series.
"We felt like we could find a way to score every time we got the puck," Toews said. "It honestly did feel like we were playing (pickup) hockey in the backyard."
Patrick Sharp scored in the first period and Patrick Kane set up Kris Versteeg's 100th career goal in the second, helping Chicago to its first win since Feb. 5 at Anaheim. The reigning Stanley Cup champions dropped their final game before the Olympic break, and then lost 2-1 at the New York Rangers on Thursday night.
James Neal was credited with Pittsburgh's only goal when Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook sent the puck into his own net at 6:21 of the third. Marc-Andre Fleury had 35 saves in the Penguins' third straight loss, matching a season high.
"It wouldn't have mattered if we played this game inside or outside or it was snow or no snow," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "They were better and more prepared to play, whatever the conditions were."
The crowd of 62,921, dressed from head to toe in several layers, usually topped by their favourite jersey, roared when the Penguins and Blackhawks emerged from separate tunnels before the game. The players were greeted by rows of fireworks and shooting flames that sent clouds of smoke into the falling flakes.
The snow was heavy for most of the first period, and then died down at the start of the second before picking up in intensity again. The small ice crew tried its best to keep up, but it was fighting an impossible battle, and inches of snow piled up on the surface between breaks in the action.
Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith tried to play the puck forward at one point in the first, but only got part of it and it sledded to a stop a few feet away.
"One time, I was carrying it up the ice and had to look down three or four times just to kind of see where it was," Kane said. "You could feel the snow down there, so it's obviously a little bit harder to push it."
The snow and frigid temperatures—it was 17 degrees when the puck was dropped for the opening faceoff—made life difficult on the star-studded teams, full of Olympians and other All-Stars. It also provided a prime-time showcase for the considerable skills of Toews, who teamed with Pittsburgh centre Sidney Crosby to lead Canada to the gold medal in the Sochi Games last weekend.
Toews and Crosby had never played against each other in an NHL regular-season game.
First, Toews found Sharp for a slap shot that went over Fleury's right shoulder and off the left post at 15:35 of the first, giving Chicago a 1-0 lead. Then, Toews made an outstanding move on Pittsburgh defenceman Brooks Orpik before squeezing a backhander between Fleury's legs at 10:47 of the second.
Toews celebrated his 20th goal by skating over to the Blackhawks bench and jumping into his delirious teammates.
"I guess I definitely got caught up in it a little bit," said Toews, who got his nickname of "Captain Serious" for his stoic demeanour.
Kane added his own flashy play, making a perfect pass to Versteeg for a goalmouth tip-in that made it 3-0 at 16:43. Versteeg ended an 11-game scoring drought by scoring at a third Chicago sports venue, joining Wrigley Field in the 2009 Winter Classic and the United Center.
"Just drive the net and put your stick down and you know a guy like Kaner is going to find you when he can," Versteeg said. "It was just a great pass."
Neal cut the lead to 3-1 in the third, but Bryan Bickell added his ninth goal at 13:57 before Toews finished the scoring with 2:08 to go.
"They're a good hockey team and they outplayed us," Crosby said. "They had us trapped in a lot of the game."
Corey Crawford had 31 stops for the Blackhawks, who lost forward Marian Hossa to an upper-body injury in the first period.
It was unclear when exactly Hossa was injured. He took a hard hit from Penguins forward Craig Adams during Chicago's second power play of the first period.
"Hossa might miss some time," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "We'll get a better idea probably more on Monday, pretty good idea, but we'll know more in a couple of days. But not long term."
NOTES: It's the Penguins' third three-game losing streak of the season. ... The NHL's last outdoor game of the season is Sunday in Vancouver, when the Canucks play the Ottawa Senators in the Heritage Classic at B.C. Place Stadium.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
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