Madison Street bars, restaurants thrilled for business to return

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Madison Street bars, restaurants thrilled for business to return

Westend Bar general manager Matt Doherty got everybody back into the hockey mood when he got to work this morning.

We were setting up this morning, the bartender getting glasses and ice ready. And first thing I played was the goal horn and Chelsea Dagger, Doherty said, referring to the Chicago Blackhawks goal celebration song. He just looked up and gave me a sly smile. I couldnt help it. Even the kitchen guys in back, I made them listen to it. They all started dancing and celebrating. So everybodys excited.

The end of a long, costly NHL lockout will get folks a little giddy.

Now that the NHL and NHLPA have agreed on how to split their hockey-related revenue, establishments along Madison can get back to acquiring theirs. Most of the bars and restaurants along the street, about a mile from the United Center, depended on revenue generated from Blackhawks home games. Now with 113 days of lockout essentially over, those businesses are looking forward to seeing their hockey crowds again.

I woke up and had about 15 texts on my phone and I thought, Oh my God! said George Lemperis, owner of Palace Grill. Lemperis always draws big Blackhawks crowds, and he estimates he lost a minimum of 75,000 during those lockout months. The only way you make it up is more games, which isnt going to happen. So we have to move forward from here.

So with that lockouts end, Lemperis said, Im beyond thrilled. Im ecstatic. The thing is, this is a destination restaurant. People come here, not just for games but after practices. Its just a win-win for everybody.

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Madison Street bars and restaurants weathered the past few months as best they could. Most estimated that they were down about 20 percent of their normal revenue during a hockey season. So in hockeys absence, they improvised.

We were adventurous to meet our numbers in November and December. January was looking like a slow one, and with any luck the season will start before too long and get those calendar dates filled up, said Matthew Breen, manager at Crossroads Bar & Grill.

It was tough, but we did pretty well considering. We booked a lot more parties and had to be more creative than were used to, but definitely our numbers were down. Its nice to know well be back at our normal functioning (numbers).

Its been a tough go, and one that didnt look good at times, considering how negotiations were (or werent) going between the league and NHLPA. Even as talk of an impending agreement built this weekend, managers were skeptical.

You didnt want to get hopes up too high, Doherty said. But its going to be great now. Hockey was so down in this city for such a long time; and the way the franchise has turned around and become one of the top in the league again, Hawks fans have showed how loyal they are. The texts Im getting this morning, people are ready. That first home game, people are going to be excited.

And business is going to be getting back to normal. Its been a long wait of slow negotiations and false alarms for everyone associated with the NHL lockout, especially those whose businesses depended on it. Now the excitement can return well, maybe once its officially official.

Im waiting for the schedule to be released before I throw a party about it; Im always nervous when it says tentative agreement, Beer Bistro manager Chris Wortendyke said with a smile. We have a good following. But nothing really replaces that hockey crowd, so were happy to have it back. January and February are always the slowest months for Chicago restaurants anyway, so its coming back at the right time. Its very exciting.

Scott Darling takes the reins for Blackhawks in Corey Crawford’s absence

Scott Darling takes the reins for Blackhawks in Corey Crawford’s absence

It’s an interesting working life, really, this backup goaltending gig.

Most of the time, you’re in hurry-up-and-wait mode. But now and then something bizarre happens – like the starting goaltender needing an appendectomy on the road – that thrusts you into the No. 1 spot for a time.

Scott Darling has been here, done this before, though, and he did it well. And considering how goaltending has been the backbone of this team’s performance this season, the Blackhawks are confident he can handle the job.

Darling gave the Blackhawks a chance again on Sunday night, his 30-stop performance keeping them within one goal in what was ultimately a 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Darling started his second consecutive game – Crawford was diagnosed with appendicitis prior to the team’s game in Philadelphia, where he had his operation. An interesting turn of events, for sure, but Darling will do what’s necessary in Crawford’s absence.

“Obviously you don’t want it to happen this way. But there’s not too many other ways it can happen so it’s an exciting opportunity for me,” Darling said following Sunday’s game. “I mean I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know how long Corey will be gone or what the game plan is. But I’m excited to get a few more starts than usual.”

Darling had a whole three games of NHL experience in December of 2014 when he subbed for Crawford, out with a lower-body injury at that time. That worked out just fine – he won three of his first four starts and came up even bigger in the Blackhawks’ first-round series against the Nashville Predators that postseason.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Coach Joel Quenneville said Darling has handled the extremes well.

“I think that’s what it’s all about in that role: you’re ready to play once every four or five games and then all of a sudden you’re playing every night and it’s a different job description, workload, pressure. But the expectations when you do get it can be different,” Quenneville said. “Some guys handle it the same way, going every fourth or fifth game and don’t change a beat. I think Darls did exactly that. He had a good demeanor, had a good approach, was patient as he always was. I think that helped a lot. He played some critical games for us in the playoffs, handled it the same way and that’s how you’re hoping they handle it.”

Darling is expected to get most, if not all, of the workload while Crawford’s out. Lars Johansson was recalled on Sunday and will serve as backup, but he has no NHL experience – then again, Darling didn’t have much a few years ago, either.

But Darling isn’t taking anything for granted during this stretch.

“I’ve gotta win some games to have the right to get those minutes,” he said.

Maybe, but the Blackhawks also have to give him some help. The goaltending hasn’t gotten a ton of that from the Blackhawks, who have sputtered offensively most of the season. No matter who’s in net, the Blackhawks need to start producing more.

For now, Darling is the man. He’s rolled with the backup-gig demands before and should be fine again. And if the Blackhawks can help him out some, they shouldn’t miss much of a beat without Crawford.

“He’s played great. I thought he played great again [Sunday],” Duncan Keith said. “He gave us a chance, and you know, more than a chance to win. He stopped breakaways and made big plays all night. We’re lucky to have him as a goalie we can look to when we’ve got a guy like Crow out.”

Five Things from Blackhawks-Jets: Offense still anemic

Five Things from Blackhawks-Jets: Offense still anemic

The Blackhawks may want to forget this weekend.

Their captain is struggling health-wise and the rest of the team is struggling in other aspects. That led to a point-less pair of games, something the Blackhawks haven’t dealt with often this season. Even a return home on Sunday, where the Blackhawks had collected points in 12 consecutive games, couldn’t help them.

Still, the show must go on. So before we trudge home in the slush, let’s look at Five Things to take from the Blackhawks’ 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

1. Jonathan Toews isn’t improving. The captain isn’t getting any worse but his injury isn’t getting better. That’s what coach Joel Quenneville said prior to the game, the sixth in a row Toews has missed with a reported back injury. Toews skated on Sunday morning but will not shut it down for a few days. That’s discouraging news, especially for Toews. You could hear the frustration in Toews’ voice when he talked following Friday’s practice. It’s likely growing.

2. Scott Darling did all he could. We could have “goaltending buoys the Blackhawks” on a save/get key this season. It was true again on Sunday as Darling was stellar in stopping 30 of 32 shots. The Blackhawks have gone through their troubles this season but goaltending hasn’t been one of them. Darling will take the bulk of the work while Corey Crawford is sidelined. If he plays the way he did on Sunday night, the Blackhawks won’t have to worry about that part of their game.

3. Little generated again. Both teams played on Saturday but the Blackhawks were the ones really looking lackluster on Sunday night. The Blackhawks once again didn’t have many great scoring opportunities; through two periods, you could count their quality shots on one hand. They woke up some in the third period but not enough.

4. Second line drawing all the attention? OK, again, right now Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane are the Blackhawks’ top line. And with that, the trio has become the prime target of attention for the opposition. Other lines have had opportunities but these are not the balanced Blackhawks teams of previous seasons. That second line is what did the bulk of the damage last season, and teams are focusing on it –  and being more successful against it – this season.

5. Power plays a problem again. The Blackhawks’ first power play was as forgettable as they come. It was so unproductive, spent so little time in the Jets’ zone that fans started to audibly groan. And when the Blackhawks got a four-minute power play late in regulation they couldn’t get the game-tying goal. Again, this isn’t the first season the power play has struggled. But when the offense overall dries up, the issues here are that much more glaring.