If you asked a fan or observer to rank all eight NHL first round series as to which was most likely to have a game with 82 shots in regulation, the Blues/Blackhawks would be near the bottom.
But, the unexpected is the rule rather than the exception in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and sure enough, the Hawks outshot the Blues 46-36 Sunday, but Brian Elliott was brilliant…and lucky…in the 3-2 win over Chicago.
The Blackhawks took 24 shots at Elliott in the second period alone, but he stood tall save for a great play by Artemi Panarin that set up Artem Anisimov’s sensational goal and gave Chicago a 2-1 lead. Some of Elliott’s luck also came in the second period when Andrew Ladd shot a puck off the near post, across the goal mouth, and off the far post before it bounced out.
Chicago had been 70-0-4 dating back to last season when leading after two periods, but the rugged, resilient Blues were able to get goals from a couple guys who needed to step up. Patrik Berglund, who had scored two goals in his last sixteen playoff games, put the puck on the net and had it flutter off Michael Rozsival’s leg for a goal. Then with Patrick Kane off for high sticking, Jaden Schwartz, who had scored two goals in twenty previous playoff games, took a feed from David Backes for the winner.
The fact the Blues overcame some frustrating officiating in Friday night’s loss and bounced back with a win isn’t lost on Chicago goalie Corey Crawford, who told the media Sunday that “whatever happens in the season, whatever’s happened in years before, they’re not the same team.”
This seems clear, and the biggest difference is twofold…the players’ consistent effort and Elliott’s spectacular play. Last season against Minnesota, and in previous years, it seemed the Blues didn’t understand the difficulty of winning a postseason series. They turned in several atrocious efforts in playoff games after wins.
But so far in all three games against Chicago, the Blues have played with desperation and great effort.
The Blues scored one goal in game one, two in game two and two in game three, and each of the tallies came from a different player. While Vladimir Tarasenko has scored, he doesn’t have to shoulder the entire weight of the offense. David Backes has scored, as has Kevin Shattenkirk, Colton Parayko, Berglund and Schwartz. It’s notable that of the Blues six goals, two have come from defensemen.
The line of Paul Stastny, Troy Brouwer and Robby Fabbri has been held off the score sheet so far, and they could be the key. Each game this series could very well be a one goal game, so the third and fourth lines are going to be crucial. Chicago’s third line of Teuvo Teravainin, Tomas Fleishmann and Richard Panic doesn’t have the history the Blues’ third line has, which should help the Blues win a game at some point.
Also notable is that while Ken Hitchcock is rolling four lines and three defensive pairs, Joel Quenneville is riding his stars. Alexander Steen had 20:33 of ice time Sunday, the only Blues forward with more than twenty minutes. Quenneville had Jonathan Toews on the ice for 22:20, Patrick Kane for 23:14 and Panarin for 20:33. On defense, Viktor Svedberg played five minutes and Rozsival 15:33. The last two Blues defensemen in terms of minutes, rookies Parayko and Joel Edmundson, combined for 26:24.
As the games go by, those minutes accumulated by Chicago’s best players should take their toll. The depth and balance we’ve talked about for the Blues all year is being utilized in the post-season, too.
Perhaps something that made Blues players droop in seasons past was conceding soft goals. This hasn’t been the case with Elliott this season. He allows legitimate goals that there’s nothing he can do with, but the team can be assured if sees the puck he’s generally going to stop it. Each of the four ‘Hawks goals against him have come on great Chicago plays.
Elliott’s teammates can count on him and the numbers bear that out. If he can maintain his current 1.28 goals against average and .963 save percentage, the Blues can count on playing for the Stanley Cup.
Most Blues have no idea how difficult it is to win four series like this. They aren’t going to face a more difficult challenge than Chicago, but Dallas, Nashville, Anaheim, L.A. and San Jose would all be towering challenges. They keys are keep playing hard, don’t worry about opposition, and get great goaltending. If the Blues can do that, they’ll have a chance to win it all.