There was a special buzz around the United Center on Tuesday. A different kind of atmosphere than usual.
The Blackhawks had won five in a row and 11 of their past 15 to climb back into the Western Conference playoff race and have been playing, by far, their best hockey of the season over the last month. The Florida Panthers were also riding a five-game winning streak and had won 12 of their past 16 to move into a top 3 spot in the Atlantic Division.
This was a big matchup in the standings for both teams before the NHL All-Star break and bye week because they each have to sit on this result for nine straight days. That itself was enough for the intensity level to be heightened.
But Tuesday was ultimately a night of celebration in Chicago.
It marked the highly-anticipated return of Joel Quenneville, who was back at the United Center for the first time since being let go on Nov. 6, 2018. He arrived at the arena just after 4 p.m. with a handful of camera crews documenting his every move and had to be directed to the visiting coaches room after nearly forgetting where it was exactly located.
Quenneville caught up with just about everyone you can think of before making his way to the visiting NBA locker room because it was the only area large enough to fit all the media members for his pregame press conference. He spent a majority of the 15 minutes reminiscing about how special his 10-plus year tenure in Chicago was and did so with a huge smile on his face.
"It all brings back a special time in our lives and a special time with the city going through some amazing runs that are so memorable," Quenneville said. "So many people shared it and so many people played a hand in it and were responsible for it. Was very fortunate to have that type of career time here in Chicago and shared by a lot of people and feeling that today."
Before officially welcoming back Quenneville, the Blackhawks honored Patrick Kane with a special pregame ceremony after he became the 90th player in NHL history to record 1,000 points and fourth to do so in franchise history. It was a perfect way to kick off the night, and it set the bar high for the next ovation.
After the first TV timeout, the Blackhawks aired a 60-second video tribute for Quenneville that included some of his best bench reactions and celebrations from their playoff victories and three Stanley Cup runs. It was impossible to encapsulate what he's meant to the organization over a one-minute span, but the more important part was that Blackhawks fans finally got a chance to thank Quenneville for everything he did by giving him a deafening ovation that seemingly never ended.
"That felt unbelievable," Quenneville said. "It was a great feeling. Captured some special moments in the building when the enthusiasm and the excitement and the noise and Kaner's starting the game off like that, and the building was rocking. It felt like a different game. Had some importance to it. It was special. It was kind of like saying thank you to me and I was thanking them, and it was all good. Felt great. That was certainly a memorable ovation I'm thankful for."
Seeing Quenneville behind the visiting bench was going to be strange for everyone. The fans, the media, the organization. And even the players.
"You just think things are going to stay the same forever and it's weird when things change and guys go to other teams," Jonathan Toews said. "Coach Q just felt like a staple with this organization, this city as well."
In fitting fashion, the Blackhawks rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the second period by scoring three of the next four goals to make it an exciting finish. But it was the Panthers who prevailed on Q night.
To cap off the memorable evening, Quenneville addressed a large herd of reporters one final time before exiting the arena. But not before making his way to Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Toews and giving each of them hugs to show his love and appreciation for His Guys.
"When I left here, the bitterness that you think you might have leaving from here would have been prevalent," Quenneville said. "But I didn't have any of that type of feeling. The memories were too special, and recapturing it here immediately, you can have the same sense of why it was like that. And show a lot of appreciation for everyone here. It's a great place to play, special fans, fun building and great organization. So thanks."
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