CHICAGO - Boston's out-of-the-ordinary (maybe even out-of-body?) start to the 2008-09 season took an unorthodox twist last night, with rookie Blake Wheeler connecting first in a shootout and then career checker P.J. Axelsson snapping home the winner with a made-for-YouTube goal almost the envy of countryman/superstar Peter Forsberg (see: Lillehammer, 1994 Olympics, shootout, Sweden, gold medal).
Axelsson, Boston's third shooter in the extra session, raced to the right post and snapped in a devilishly clever backhand under the crossbar, handing the Bruins a 2-1 shootout win over the Blackhawks before a sellout crowd of 22,092 at the United Center. It was the Bruins' seventh victory in their last eight outings, and they'll carry their impressive 9-3-3 start into tonight's matchup with the Canadiens at the Garden.
"I was kind of lucky on that one," said the ever-humble Axelsson, who remembers participating in a shootout only once before, against the Rangers. "The goalie [Nikolai Khabibulin] got a piece of it with his glove. We've been practicing that in practice a little bit, and I just wanted to get the shot up."
It was the end to an exciting, entertaining night in the Windy City, a town where hockey has been exhumed from the sports graveyard. The building pulsated, much like the long-gone Chicago Stadium, where heroes such as Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita once ruled the rink.
Despite a bad start, in which they gave up four power-play opportunities in the first period, the Bruins scored first, and held the lead until young Hawks captain Jonathan Toews directed in a power-play goal for a 1-1 tie with 10:50 remaining in regulation. It all came down to the shootout, with Wheeler the first to jump off the Boston bench after Toews failed on the Hawks' first shootout attempt.
Wheeler closed to the top of the crease, and when Khabibulin came toward him, the oversized rookie expanded his reach while falling and tucked the puck in the open right side.
"I could tell he was so far out," said Wheeler, "and when I got around him, I just slammed it. Being the first shooter can be a little nerve-racking, I guess, but we've been doing a lot of shooting in practice. If you're not scoring in the shootouts, it can cost you a point in the standings, and we wanted to get better. Luckily, he bit on my move and then, like I said, I just slammed it.
The Bruins connected for a 1-0 lead with 54 seconds remaining in the second period when Marco Sturm tipped in his fourth of the season. Cutting toward the right post with the Bruins skating with the man advantaage, the German-born winger put the shaft to a Zdeno Chara wrister from the right faceoff dot.
"I think Z timed that shot," said Sturm. "I moved into the slot, and with no one there, I just stayed a little longer . . . got a piece of it."
Chara, who usually doesn't stray far from his point position, was close to the net, and he timed his shot perfectly as Sturm moved in to set the screen.
The Hawks, stymied by goalie Tim Thomas on 27 shots through two periods, finally potted the equalizer with Chuck Kobasew in the penalty box serving a minor (hooking).
Toews knocked home the 1-1 tie by slipping behind Chara, the Boston captain, as Patrick Kane moved off the right halfboard with the puck. With Toews in position, Kane closed toward the right faceoff dot and unloaded a low, hard wrister that Toews put the touch to for only his second goal this season.
The Bruins potted another puck with 10:48 gone, and it again was Sturm, but the goal was immediately waved off by the refereeing crew. Wheeler, being slightly overzealous around the cage, clearly interfered with Khabibulin, allowing the Russian tender little chance of stopping the Sturm shot from the left side.
"I'm not sure what happened there," said Wheeler. "I didn't hit him, I know that for sure. But I guess I got in too deep and it didn't allow him to move, or something."
With 2:16 left in the five-minute overtime, the Hawks' Patrick Sharp was awarded a penalty shot when Aaron Ward swept his feet out from under him on a breakaway. On the free try, Sharp was turned back by fellow University of Vermont alum Thomas.
"Yeah, a couple of UVM guys right there," said Thomas, who made 31 saves on the night, facing only five shots over the final 25 minutes. "I enjoyed it all, till the end . . . it gets a little stressful when they're throwing penalty shots at you in overtime."