Don’t expect the St. Louis Blues to show any overconfidence when it comes to any type of playoff series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks.
“You look at the playoffs and I think it’s going to be a reflection of the regular season,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team won three of the five regular-season meetings with the defending Stanley Cup champions before edging the Blackhawks 1-0 in overtime Wednesday in Game 1. “There wasn’t much difference in the regular season.”
When it comes to the playoffs, the Blackhawks have held the upper hand. Besides winning three Stanley Cup titles in the last three years, the ‘Hawks overcame a 2-0 deficit in their first-round series against the Blues in 2014 by winning the final four games.
Chicago is 8-3 all-time against the Blues in playoff series, with the Blues’ only series wins coming in 2002, 1993 and 1988.
The 2014 series was particularly painful since along with the Blues being unable to hold on to a 2-0 series lead after winning twice at home, four of the six games were decided in overtime.
The difference when we’ve played these guys in the playoffs is there’s been a couple of guys on their team that got loose. They got loose later in the series and made a big difference scoring overtime goals and stuff like that. Maybe it’s our turn.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock
“The difference when we’ve played these guys in the playoffs is there’s been a couple of guys on their team that got loose,” Hitchcock said, recalling big goals by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in 2014. “They got loose later in the series and made a big difference scoring overtime goals and stuff like that. Maybe it’s our turn.”
The Blues took a step in the right direction in Game 1 on Wednesday, riding an overtime game-winner from David Backes to a 1-0 victory. The Blues have won five of their previous six playoff games at home against the Hawks, with Game 2 set for 7 p.m. Friday at Scottrade Center.
The Central Division rivals also have battled into overtime in each of the last four playoff contests played in St. Louis.
“There’s not a big difference playing against St. Louis and playing Tampa in the (2014 Stanley Cup) Final,” Niklas Hjalmarsson told the Chicago Sun-Times after Wednesday’s Game 1 loss. “It’s like a Stanley Cup Final right away. St. Louis is one of the best teams in the league. We’re up for a big task here to get back on the winning track.”
Backes doesn’t expect any blowouts the way recent playoff history has played out for these two Western Conference powers.
“It’s what we expect from these two teams, two really good teams going at it and (Wednesday) was no different,” Backes said. “If they’re all one-goal games like they were two years ago it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. Everything’s magnified: every play, every turnover or blocked shot or faceoff. It all means a lot to your team having success and we had a lot of guys contributing.”
Duncan Keith returns for Blackhawks
One big difference for the Blackhawks in Game 2 will be the return of star defenseman Duncan Keith, who missed Game 1 while sitting out the final game of a six-game suspension for high sticking.
Keith won the Conn Smythe Trophy last season as the playoff Most Valuable Player after helping the Blackhawks win another Stanley Cup title with the Cup-clinching goal. It was the third championship for Keith during his tenure.
If they’re all one-goal games like they were two years ago it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. Everything’s magnified: every play, every turnover or blocked shot or faceoff. It all means a lot to your team having success and we had a lot of guys contributing.
Blues captain David Backes
Along with Brent Seabrook, he creates major problems defensively for opponents and is also an offensive threat with nine goals and 43 points in 67 games. Keith routinely plays 30 minutes a night and a goal-starved Blues team that needed a bizarre deflection to get something past ‘Hawks goaltender Corey Crawford in Game 1 won’t find things any easier now that Keith is back in the lineup.
“(Keith) coming back is going to be a big boost for them,” said Blues winger Troy Brouwer, a former teammate of Keith’s when both played in Chicago. “It’s another guy that we have to worry about, a guy that I think logs the most minutes in the NHL or close to it.
“When you have an opportunity when he’s out of the lineup, we wanted to take advantage of it and we were able to. Their D-core is going to look a little different on Friday with him in the lineup, but it’s another player that we’ve got to play against night in and night out.”
Cranking out the hits
Much was made about the Blues’ lopsided edge in hits during Game 1 as they were credited with 41 hits compared to 24 by the Blackhawks.
Is that a good thing, going on an all-out physical assault against the highly-skilled ‘Hawks?
Hitchcock certainly thinks so — and wants even more the rest of the series. Even diminutive Blues winger Robby Fabbri got into the act with a hard check on Michal Rozsival that sent Rozsival to the dressing room for repairs briefly.
“No, we’re going to have to go up way bigger,” Hitchcock said when asked about the high amount of hits. “We’re going to have to get it into the 70s if we expect to win. We passed on hits (in Game 1) because we got tired, the pace. Hopefully we don’t pass moving forward. We’ll talk about that (Friday).”
While the Blues were outshot 35-18 by the Blackhawks, an old nemesis from playoff seasons past also surfaced. The Blues were credited with a whopping 20 shots that missed the net altogether.
Creating traffic in front is one thing, and a cross-ice pass from Backes did wind up in the back of the Blackhawks’ net to win the game in overtime.
Credit the Blackhawks’ tight defense for forcing the Blues into less than accurate shooting, but 40-goal sniper Vladimir Tarasenko also passed up two potential scoring chances to pass to a teammate.
“He’s a skilled player and he’s an unbelievably talented player,” Brouwer said of Tarasenko, who had only one shot in Game 1. “When he thinks he has an opportunity to shoot, with the shot that he has and the season that he had, you know he’s going to shoot.
“But when he thinks there’s an opportunity to make maybe a better play or a more high-quality play, he’s going to make that play.”
Hitchcock wants his team to find a way to put even more pressure on Crawford and the ‘Hawks defense.
“I think we were guilty of trying to make the next play,” said Hitchcock, who wants to see more of a shooting mentality in Game 2. “We didn’t funnel enough pucks (to the net) when we had opportunities and it’s something we’re going to have to do more of.
“We tried to make the next play and the way Chicago defends, it makes you do that. We’ve got to find different mechanisms in our offense to put more pressure on them. When we played physical down low in their zone, we retrieved a lot of pucks. We’ve got to do a better job there.”
Another big story in Game 1 was missed opportunities on the power play. The Blackhawks were 0-for-5, including a 36-second, 5-on-3 chance during a run of three power plays in the opening period, while the Blues were 0-for-4.
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
First-round playoff series
Wednesday, April 13
Blues 1, Blackhawks 0, OT (Blues lead series 1-0)
Friday, April 15
Game 2: Chicago at St. Louis, 7 p.m. (TV: Fox Sports Midwest; NBCSN)
Sunday, April 17
Game 3: St. Louis at Chicago, 2 p.m. (TV: KSDK Channel 5)
Tuesday, April 19
Game 4: St. Louis at Chicago, 8:30 p.m. (TV: Fox Sports Midwest; NBCSN)
Thursday, April 21
Game 5 (if necessary): Chicago at St. Louis, TBA
Saturday, April 23
Game 6 (if necessary): St. Louis at Chicago, TBA
Monday, April 25
Game 7 (if necessary): Chicago at St. Louis, TBA