LAS VEGAS — Nick Foligno wanted to go ballistic. Wanted to grab Brett Howden by the neck, throw him to the ice and just beat the hell out of him. So did Corey Perry. So did Jarred Tinordi. So did Jason Dickinson. Hell, so did Luke Richardson, probably. All of them were irate, pointing fingers and spewing spittle as the Chicago Blackhawks and Vegas Golden Knights convened near the benches while Alex Vlasic slowly wobbled to his feet in the second period Friday night.
Howden had delivered a late, blindside hit to Vlasic, the Blackhawks’ promising 22-year-old defenseman. And every nerve ending in Foligno’s body was on fire, every muscle coiling, every neuron in his brain firing, telling him to answer the hit. To do the thing he was brought to Chicago for. To be the teammate everyone knows he is.
But Foligno held back. Gritted his teeth. Said his piece. And left the situation.
“The teammate in you wants to jump that guy right away,” Foligno said.
But he didn’t. Nobody did. Just like nobody did anything to Brandon Carlo when the Boston Bruins defenseman delivered the same kind of hit to Taylor Hall, who’s on injured reserve as a result.
Where’s the fight? Where’s the response? Where are all the things Richardson, Foligno and others talked about during training camp? About protecting the Blackhawks’ bevy of young talent? About standing up for teammates? About making it clear to the rest of the NHL that Chicago was no longer so easily pushed around? About accountability, about being hard to play against, about pushing back?
Well, it was right there on the scoreboard, hanging over center ice at T-Mobile Arena as the Knights trudged off the ice as losers for the first time in the 2023-24 season, the NHL’s last perfect team perfect no longer. It read 4-3, with the four on the Blackhawks’ side, Philipp Kurashev’s shot from the high slot on an overtime power play the difference.
That is how you answer. That is how you stick up for your teammate. There’ll be time for a big hit or a perfunctory fight when the teams meet again in the penultimate game of the season. Or not. Who cares? The Blackhawks won. A punch is satisfying but fleeting. Two points last.
“Those are the tough ones, because these points are so important,” Foligno said, clearly still anguished over the decision not to challenge Howden. “We’ll get another crack at him. You just have to wait and check his number. We want to protect ourselves, we want to make sure guys aren’t feeling like they’re taken advantage of. In a game like that, 2-2, it’s one of those hits that pisses everybody off. But the best way to get back at them is getting the win. Then we’ll handle it down the road. You want to jump him, but things don’t happen like that anymore, right? These points are too important and we’re a team that’s trying to find our way. That bond will come. That style will come. It’s a tough situation.”
Richardson, a hard-nosed defender in the NHL for 21 seasons, admitted after the Carlo hit on Hall that he used to deliver those kinds of hits all the time in his day. And if the game were out of hand — like it seemed destined for after Vegas jumped out to a 2-0 lead four minutes in — instead of tied 2-2 in the second period, maybe there would have been a full-blown, old-school line brawl.
But Richardson liked how the Blackhawks handled it — vocally, then on the scoreboard.
“The (games) are so tight that we can’t afford to take one more penalty,” he said. “We’ll take a penalty from battling hard, but if we take a penalty because we got goaded in and sucked into something stupid, those are the ones that usually go in against you. So you just take a number and you let them know. And hopefully that changes their outlook in the game, just by talking to them. That goes a long way, because then your thinking changes as a player on the other team. ‘Is someone coming after me? Is something going on?’ Maybe it disrupts things.”
Eight games into the Connor Bedard era, the Blackhawks are still seeking their identity. And if it’s not going to be unbridled physicality and aggression, maybe it’ll be sheer skill. After all, the Blackhawks got back in the game with two pretty plays just 89 seconds apart in the first period — terrific puck movement by Wyatt Kaiser and Perry to set up a Ryan Donato goal, then a great Vlasic quick-up to Foligno and a sensational one-handed feed to a streaking Bedard for a rocket of a wrist shot and a 2-2 tie.
pov you’re rinkside for bedsy bombs pic.twitter.com/6yGZAI0YEs
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) October 27, 2023
That’s what the Blackhawks want to be — quick, aggressive, dangerous. Even Foligno, brought in for character and mentorship and fourth-line grit, has been a scoring-chance machine, second only to Bedard’s 23 with 16 of his own. He’s now a first-liner for the Blackhawks, dangling defenders and even making a spectacular stop-and-spin shot around Alex Pietrangelo five minutes into the third, with the Blackhawks up 3-2 thanks to Taylor Raddysh’s goal right after a penalty kill.
“Ten years ago, maybe I’d put that in,” Foligno said with a wry smile. “Son of a b—-! But it’s always nice to razzle-dazzle a bit.”
Still, it was the end of the game that meant the most to the Blackhawks, as they killed off consecutive Vegas power plays late in the game. The last one came without their top two PK defenders — Seth Jones was in the penalty box for a trip off Chandler Stephenson, and Vlasic was out of the game. But with Kevin Korchinski and Wyatt Kaiser getting rare PK time, the Blackhawks had their most dominant kill of the season. The Knights never even managed to control the puck in the offensive zone. That got the Blackhawks to overtime, where Bedard, Kurashev and Jones stayed on the ice for all two minutes and 50 seconds.
“That was their best performance, I thought, by far,” Richardson said of Korchinski and Kaiser. “Korchinski didn’t have an end-to-end rush or a goal or a shot or anything like that, but I thought two of them really played with a lot of composure and poise. And we’re going to need that going forward. That was a good sign, and it’s great experience for them.”
And that’s the identity the Blackhawks truly want — to be competitive. To be a tough out. To be a winning hockey team. That’s the ultimate goal, to be scary on the scoreboard, not after the whistles. Beating up Howden would have felt good, but it wouldn’t have done anything to speed up Vlasic’s return from what Richardson said could be whiplash, but clearly could also be a concussion. And it could have cost them the game, adding insult to injury. Instead, the Blackhawks were smart, and the Knights left smarting.
Chicago might be an underwhelming 3-5-0, but those three wins came at Pittsburgh, at Toronto and at Vegas. They came back from down 2-0 against both the Penguins and the Knights. And they just flat-out beat the Maple Leafs. Given how absurdly brutal this early portion of the schedule is, three wins is not nothing. It’s something. It’s a start.
“I was really proud of our guys tonight,” Foligno said. “We answered a call to be harder, to be more competitive. And down 2-0, we could have easily been like, ‘Oh, no.’ I think it showed a lot of character and a lot of fight to come back. It showed what we’re made of.”
More than any fight could have.
(Photo: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)