CHICAGO – Blackhawks forward Brandon Bollig chose his words with the skill and caution of a tightrope walker.
A few seconds before the Hawks’ first goal of what turned out to be a one-goal victory, did Bollig quietly nudge the stick away from Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick?
“Ummm,” he said with a hint of a smile. “I don’t know. You tell me.”
And I’m all for it.
Beauty is in the details, and the Blackhawks are playing beautiful hockey.
Here’s the big picture: The Hawks beat the Kings, 3-2, on Sunday to improve to 12-0-3. They have earned at least one point in each their first 15 games, matching the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers and moving within one game of the NHL record, set by the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks.
Those Ducks won the Stanley Cup, by the way. So did the fast-starting Oilers.
For the Hawks to follow suit, every player will have to contribute.
That includes Bollig, who entered Sunday’s game with three times as many penalty minutes (75) as games played (25) in his career. Yet the 26-year-old from suburban St. Louis made one of the most important plays of the game, even if it never will show up in a box score.
In the first period, Quick lost his stick. A Kings player tried to slide the stick back to Quick, but Bollig saw it happen and used his stick to nudge the goaltender’s stick a few feet away before Quick had a chance to scoop it up.
At least, that’s what it looked like to me.
It turns out that a goaltender’s stick is kind of an important work tool for, uh, a goaltender.
A goalie with no stick might as well be a reporter with no notebook, a butcher with no knife, a firefighter with no hose. Imagine a referee with no whistle. Imagine RuPaul with no wig.
OK, don’t imagine that last part.
The point here is that Quick was in a world of trouble. He knew it, the Hawks knew it, and another sellout crowd of 21,843 fans watching from inside the United Center knew it.
Without his stick, Quick watched Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith handle the puck near the blue line. Keith fired a pass to teammate Brent Seabrook, who quickly ripped a shot into an open net before Quick could recover.
I tried asking Bollig again about the sequence. He politely spoke as if an invisible attorney were whispering into his ear.
“I think it’s illegal for us to touch that stick,” Bollig said. “It may have touched me. I don’t know. I can’t tell you.”
Here’s what the NHL rulebook can tell me.
"Rule 53.2: When moving a stick that is not broken, no penalty shall be assessed as long as it does not interfere with the play and the player who lost said stick is not attempting to retrieve it, otherwise an interference penalty must be assessed."
It was enough to upset Kings coach Darryl Sutter after the game.
“Our goaltender should have been allowed to have his stick,” Sutter said. “It got pushed away and it should have been a penalty.
“The shorter referee was standing right there by our bench – the other guy couldn't see it – but the shorter one had the same view that I did, and he should have made the call. We shoved his stick to him and they shoved it away. It shouldn't be a goal."
Exactly how short was this “shorter referee”? I spotted no Oompa Loompas on the ice.
But I digress.
If Quick had his stick on the play, who knows whether the Hawks would have scored? And if the Hawks had not scored early, who knows how the game would have turned out?
“That was a big goal to get us rolling,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
It has been like that all season for the Hawks.
Hidden among the highlights are blocked shots and poke checks and the type of extra effort that draws a penalty or keeps a play alive. It’s standing up for a teammate after a big hit. It’s making a heads-up play away from the puck (and if it's illegal, it's not getting caught).
It’s about details, details, details.
“They stress that a lot,” Bollig said. “I don’t think you can win on skill alone. We definitely have plenty of skill, but you’ve got to do the little things and pay attention to details.”
All of those tiny details add up to one big fact.
The Hawks are the best team in hockey.