Patrick Sharp got a taste for what his return to Chicago would be like when the Blackhawks and Dallas Stars squared off at the United Center in the final preseason game on Oct. 3. But it was still emotional for everyone watching Sharp on the visiting side of a meaningful game in February.
"Tough start to the game to be honest with you," Sharp said following a 4-2 win over the Blackhawks on Thursday night. "My legs were a little shaky, which was funny. I haven't felt that way in a long time. I think as the game went on, got a nice cheer from the crowd, that made me feel pretty good, then it was just a regular hockey game after that."
It didn't feel like a regular hockey game until Sharp was properly welcomed back, something the Blackhawks rightfully held off on doing until their first regular season meeting instead of in the preseason.
During the first TV timeout of the game, the Blackhawks displayed a lengthy video montage on the video board — and later for Johnny Oduya during a separate tribute — thanking Sharp for his contributions to the organization, which featured moments from his rookie season to helping bring three Stanley Cups to a city that starved for just one prior to 2010.
A sold-out crowd of 22,051 gave the former Blackhawk a standing ovation that nearly blew the United Center roof off.
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"Very special," Sharp said of the crowd's reaction. "First class by a first-class organization. I've said many times, I've enjoyed my 10 years here in Chicago. Very proud of what we accomplished on and off the ice, got a lot of good friends there on the other side. It was definitely emotional to watch that. Lot of footage when I was younger, just kind of makes you think of all the good times over the years here."
Many of those good times involved late-game heroics through late-period surges, something Sharp helped ignite in a young Blackhawks team. Only this time, he found out what it felt like being on the other side.
"Yeah, I've seen that a few times," Sharp said of the Blackhawks, who out-shot the Stars 21-2 in the third period. "Been a part of a few of those, when the (defense) gets active and they're hanging on to pucks, making plays. Tough to kind of withstand, but credit our goaltender. He made some big saves to keep that two-goal lead."
For Sharp, he was one of three players — along with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — on the 2015 championship team to have been there for both the bad times of finishing near the bottom of the standings with the Blackhawks and the good of enjoying the top of the mountain three times.
Now with the Stars, Sharp is looking to instill that backs-against-the-wall mentality and bring the kind of experience a young team looking to break through needs, which is something Stars coach Lindy Ruff and teammates noticed immediately.
"He knows how to win and he knows how to act when you lose, too," Ruff said.
"He's made us better-looking," a chuckling Kari Lehtonen, who made 44 saves in the win, said before adding: "He's been there, done that. People listen to him. He does all the right things. He works hard and brings some great skill too. He's been a great addition."
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Sharp credited a smooth transition to the team's already tight-knit group when he first joined Dallas.
"It's an easy team to fit in to," Sharp said before the game. "Great locker room, they're well-coached, they're having a lot of fun on an off the ice, it's great to be a part of. We've had a good season up until this point, but ultimately we're going to be defined by how well we play down the stretch."
The Stars had won four of their last five games entering Thursday night's contest, but a 5-1 shellacking by Chicago over the weekend in their own building left a sour taste in their mouth.
A few players, including captain Jamie Benn, called it "embarrassing."
They responded by jumping out to a 4-0 lead in the first period on Thursday, thanks to a hat trick by Patrick Eaves, which chased Blackhawks netminder Corey Crawford, who hadn't allowed four goals in a game since Dec. 29.
"Our team was fired up," Sharp said. "Playing a team like Chicago, especially what happened last time, our guys were certainly ready to play. Not often you score four on (Crawford) like that, but great start, thought we played pretty well after that."
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With the win, the Stars pulled within a point for the Central Division lead on the Blackhawks with three games in hand, a task Sharp never lost sight of heading into the matchup.
"First couple games against the Hawks was difficult to play in," Sharp said. "A little emotional, a little weird out there, but some valuable points on the line so I'm sure those feelings will go away as the season goes on."
Not only was it a special day for Sharp, who also played his 800th career game in a stadium he played a bulk of them in, but his entire family as well after they got to spend the day with him in Chicago. That included his dad, who tagged along on the Stars' father's trip this week and may have had more fun in the return than Sharp.
"I know my dad's having a great time," Sharp said. "He thinks he runs the United Center. I see him going around shaking everyone's hand and seeing old friends from the Hawks, so he's having a great time as well."
While the day was certainly a memorable one for Sharp, the story could get better if the two Central Division foes meet down the line in the postseason, which is a strong possibility.
"I'm sure. Our team is a younger team. We're getting better," he said. "We feel like if we want to get to a place where we want to be, Chicago is going to be in the way at the end of the season. It's just one game, many more battles down the road, and it should get more and more intense as we go."