The Blackhawks’ season appeared to be peaking at the perfect moment. With owner-superstar Mario Lemieux back on the ice after a three-and-a-half-year layoff, the Pittsburgh Penguins were coming to town, bringing the Hawks their first capacity crowd at the United Center since a bunch of Detroit Red Wings fans filled the place early in the season. Owner Bill Wirtz, in a move of bold generosity for him–if an obvious gesture for anyone else–allowed the sold-out game two Sundays ago to be televised on the team’s cable outlet, Fox Sports Net Chicago. There was a buzz about the team and about the stadium unlike anything anyone had felt for years–probably not since the Hawks had been swept at the hands of the very same Lemieux and the Pens in the 1992 Stanley Cup finals.

The Hawks came into the game on a roll, having won 10 and tied 2 of their previous 14 games, a stretch that got them back to .500 after a miserable start and revived their playoff hopes. First-year coach Alpo Suhonen was having great success with a reconfigured set of lines–teaming steak-and-eggs digger Bob Probert with the offensive-minded Tony Amonte and Alex Zhamnov, and the often recalcitrant enigma Eric Daze with the scurrying Steve Sullivan and Michael Nylander. Though only a couple of months earlier it had looked as if Suhonen might not complete the season, the team was now thriving under his offensive system of drop passes and misdirection. Of course it helped to have a red-hot goalie–the key to all streaking hockey teams. Jocelyn Thibault, playing every game in that stretch, was allowing just over a goal and a half a night. The Penguins were six and five since Lemieux’s unexpected return from retirement at age 35. Could they challenge the Hawks?

The Hawks outskated the Penguins throughout the scoreless first period, putting 12 shots on goal to Pittsburgh’s 3. But that was the point at which the Hawks’ season took on the aspect of a fireworks display in which a single rocket rains colorful ashes on the crowd–and that’s it. By the end of the week the Hawks would be in free fall.

I suppose I could have found a way to get tickets to the Hawks’ game against the Penguins, but what would have been the fun in that? I stayed home for the novelty of watching a Hawks home game on TV, explaining to my daughters the importance of “Super Mario” and of such Chicago hockey rituals as shouting through the national anthem. Of all the pregame TV productions designed to give the home team an air of mystery and greatness–a marketing tool adopted by the Bulls and White Sox–the Hawks have the most effective. The ambient background music has a tribal tone to it, and the visuals pour over the distinctive Chief Black Hawk logo and the various tools of the hockey trade–skates, sticks, pads–in a way that reminds one of the almost mystical power a fan endows them with in childhood. These give way to a highlight reel of team greats skating by–Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito and Denis Savard and even Keith Magnuson, who’s getting the better of someone in a fight for what was probably the only time in his career. It all looked even better at home than it usually looks on the scoreboard TV.

History was in the air with Lemieux on the ice. Driven to retire after the 1997 playoffs by nagging injuries and the clutching style of play then rampant in the National Hockey League, he decided this season to end his R and R and return to a league now less given to cheap shots and fighting. He was cheered as he opened the game on the ice, and that cheering seemed to rally the Hawks, who were determined to make this full-house crowd their own. The Hawks flew all over the ice but couldn’t buy a break. Sullivan set up Daze for an open shot on a two-on-one, but Daze pushed the puck right into the pads of Pittsburgh goalie Garth Snow. Nylander later fed Daze right in front of the net, and Daze beat Snow this time, but the shot glanced off the post. (In the Hawks’ alternate universe, that shot goes in and everything’s different.) Lemieux, who had returned to score 10 goals and earn 12 assists in his first 11 games, his usual two-points-a-game pace, looked lovely, scooting across the blue line into the attack zone, pulling up, drawing the defense, controlling the puck, and then slipping a nice pass to Jaromir Jagr, who muffed it. That was the story for both teams in the first period–missed opportunities.

The Hawks’ bad luck continued in the second period. Sullivan drew Snow’s attention and then slipped a crossing pass to Daze for an open shot, but Snow jumped back to make the save–going “post to post,” announcer Pat Foley groaned. Then came the moment that might turn out to have ended the Hawks’ season. Zhamnov caught a puck in the throat that fractured his larynx. Zhamnov has never been the player the Hawks thought they were getting when they traded Jeremy Roenick for him, but he has played as well as ever this season, and he and Amonte are two of the team’s few true offensive forces. When he went down, something seemed to go out of the Hawks, and it didn’t take the Pens long to exploit it. Alexei Kovalev skated into the attack zone and left a between-the-legs drop pass for Martin Straka trailing. Straka launched a shot through traffic and the puck trickled past Thibault for a goal. Thibault remained sharp. At one point Lemieux got the puck at the corner of the crease and couldn’t control it on his forehand; as the defense closed on him he spun to his backhand and got off a crisp shot that Thibault, lying on the ice, deflected with his glove.

Amonte got a great chance to tie the game moments later, slipping behind the Pittsburgh defense for a breakaway, but he forced the shot into Snow’s pads, and a frustrated Probert took a roughing penalty for harassing the goalie in the ensuing scuffle. Rene Corbet scored a minute into the Pittsburgh power play to make it 2-0. In the final minute, the Hawks gave one away. Defenseman Stephane Quintal made an awful pass in his own end. Jagr picked it off and passed to Kevin Stevens. Thibault blocked the shot, and who but Lemieux was there to tap in the rebound like a short putt.

After putting my five-year-old down with a couple of stories, I decided to go out and see how the neighborhood was reacting to this rare Chicago home hockey game. The Irish sports bar around the corner was hopping, but unfortunately what they had on the television was the Australian Open tennis tournament. By the time I made it down the street to the Lyons Den, a more reliable sports bar, the Pens had scored again and it was 4-0. I was one of two customers in the place; the other was the boyfriend of one of the barmaids, waiting around for her shift to end so they could go to the movies. Still, they had the Hawks on, and they didn’t mind my lighting up a Cuban cigar my buddy Mark recently brought back from Costa Rica. The Hawks, to their credit, weren’t about to give up. They raced up and down the ice, falling into the set plays that create order out of hockey’s apparent chaos–passing across the ice to give a player an open shot on a three-on-two, skating as a decoy on the wing to draw the defense, only to circle back, pick up the puck, and get off a shot–and the Pens did the same. The third period was 20 minutes of sustained action–each side rushing the puck up, getting off a shot, and then the defense clearing the puck almost like a basketball fast break–and it went by in a flash. I believe this was the best 4-0 hockey game I’ve ever seen. It was the sort of game one wants to share with the people who dismiss hockey as Roller Derby on ice. You see? At its best it’s a beautiful sport.

But Hawks fans who hadn’t actually seen the Penguins game weren’t enticed by the one-sided score, and the loss of Zhamnov–compounded by injuries to defenseman Boris Mironov, operated on for a torn ligament in his left wrist, and to promising winger Chris Herperger, who suffered a concussion in the morning skate before the Pittsburgh game–seemed to soak in. From a peak of 22,135, attendance fell back to 15,646 for last Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers. The late-arriving crowd did its best to shout through the anthem, but the Hawks didn’t respond. Thibault, playing his 18th straight game, looked awful from the opening minute, when he gave up a goal on a weak shot that he reached for like a boy trying to grasp a butterfly, only to see Keith Primeau smack the puck to the ice out of midair and brush it into the net. Minutes later Thibault made a kick save and deflected the puck out in front; he was fortunate a defenseman got there first to knock it aside. The loss of Zhamnov forced Suhonen to rejigger his lines, moving Sullivan in with Probert and Amonte and Dean McAmmond in with Daze and Nylander. As a result, the Hawks offense looked ragged and out of sync. At one point Daze, Nylander, and McAmmond were all digging for the puck in the same corner, leaving nobody in front of the net to pass to even if they had managed to control it, which they didn’t. Amonte was forced to take a hooking penalty to quash a Philly scoring chance in front of the Hawks net, and the Flyers converted the power play. Primeau got the puck to the side of the Hawks net, drew the defense, and then slid a pass through four Hawks to Dan McGillis at the left point, and he slapped the puck past Thibault.

“That’s the game,” said one beat writer familiar with the Hawks’ offense, which tends to come in trickles even when the players are in the best of health. The question is, was it the season? Thibault gave up another goal in the first minute of the second period and still another–the fourth in only 10 shots–midway through the period. That prompted Suhonen to lift him for Michel Larocque, who was making his NHL debut. The Hawks fought on defense to make his first game respectable, but the offense–in marked contrast with the way it fought to the finish against Pittsburgh–went belly-up. The Hawks’ Steve Dubinsky shot through a Ryan VandenBussche screen, and though Philly goaltender Brian Boucher made the initial stop, VandenBussche knocked in the rebound–but that was the Hawks’ only goal of the night. Larocque gave up a power-play goal in the last frame to make the final 5-1. Amonte was booed when he got off a lame shot on an open two-on-two in the final minutes, and so were the rest of the Hawks as the clock ticked down.

Only a few days before they’d been so close to actually reenergizing Chicago’s hockey fans. They’d done everything right on and off the ice, down to putting the Pittsburgh game on TV. Yet they came out of the Philly game looking like the same old Hawks. And now, with the playoffs seemingly slipping away, they were embarking on a a critical eight-game road trip. Suhonen was asked what kind of energy the team would take with them. “That’s a good question,” he responded with a shrug. The Hawks went to Colorado and got buried 5-2 by the Avalanche, and though they won 6-2 last Sunday in Vancouver, they remained eight points away from the last playoff spot. Hockey is a game of momentum, and the Hawks seemed to have lost theirs. Through no fault of their own, perhaps, but that’s small solace.