Lankinen's struggles continue as Blackhawks fall to Panthers
The site was almost jarring. The sounds, somewhat shocking.
Because finally -- after nearly 14 long months -- fans were once again in the United Center for a hockey game.
Not many of them, mind you -- about 200 who were invited by the Blackhawks for a "soft opening" before 4,000 will flood the UC for the final two home games.
But their return was a welcome site as the world attempts to return to some sense of normalcy during a pandemic in which almost nothing has been normal.
"There was only a couple hundred, but you could definitely tell," said Adam Gaudette, who notched a pair of assists during the Hawks' 5-4 loss to the Florida Panthers. "It was great to have the fans here. I always loved coming to play at this rink because the atmosphere was always crazy.
"I can't wait to see this place packed."
Other than Patrick Kane flipping his pregame puck to a lucky patron, there weren't many reasons to cheer early on as Florida took a 2-0 lead.
But everyone leapt out of their seats when Connor Murphy made it 2-1 at 15:19 of the second period, then exploded once again just 52 seconds later when Alex DeBrincat notched his 25th goal to tie it at 2-2.
Things went south in a hurry after that, though. Kevin Lankinen, having already given up a soft goal to Nikita Gusev, ended up too far away from the net on Aleksander Barkov's score that made it 3-2 with 6.8 ticks remaining in the second.
Early in the third, a charging Anthony Duclair got Lankinen to commit, then tucked the puck around the Hawks' netminder for a 4-2 Panthers lead. Thirty-one seconds later it was 5-2 when Owen Tippett rifled a one-timer past Lankinen, whose save percentage is an unsightly .868 over his last eight games.
Not that everything was on Lankinen as the Hawks were outshot 40-29 after 55 minutes. Only a late flurry made the final numbers (42-35) look respectable.
"It's frustrating," Murphy said. "It's on us players to be sharp in every situation and realize that a lot of shifts the game's on the line, especially the first shifts of a period or the last shift of a period. ...
"There's a lot of moments in the game where we're not showing enough desperation to continue to push the game in the right direction."
Joel Quenneville's Panthers, now 34-14-5, come at you from every angle. They relentlessly invade the slot. They camp in front of the net, ready for tap-ins. They beat you to loose pucks, deliver razor-sharp passes and possess some of the deadliest moves in the game.
Pause or lose concentration for an instant and the puck is in the back of your net.
"We turned the puck over, fed their transition," said Colliton, whose team is 22-23-6 and now definitely out of the playoff hunt. "They're an excellent transition team and they make you pay when you turn it over."
The Hawks did come back thanks to goals by Kirby Dach and Dominik Kubalik, but Kubalik's came with just 18 seconds remaining.
Next up for Colliton's squad are three games at first-place Carolina (34-10-7).
"Focus (now) is to play with pride and to play the right way," Murphy said. "Realize there's something that we need to continue to build here and realize that it's a process no matter what time of the year you're in -- whether you're in it or you're out of it. Whether it's the first game or the last game you've got to play the right way and just follow the team game ... because that'll build into good things over time."