A winner-take-all Game 7 is perhaps the best way to wrap up what has morphed into a wild first-round Stanley Cup playoff series between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blues jumped out to a 3-1 series lead and pushed the defending Stanley Cup champs to the brink of elimination, only to watch the experienced Blackhawks led by Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith dig their way out of a hole. That hole included a 3-1 deficit at home Saturday night in the first period of Game 6, a game the ‘Hawks roared back to win 6-3.
Coach Ken Hitchcock made one lineup change for the series finale, bringing back rookie defenseman Joel Edmundson to replace Robert Bortuzzo.
How focused was Hitchcock on Monday morning before Game 7?
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When asked if he was staying at the rink all day, he said “No, I can hardly wait to get rid of you folks so I can go watch more Barnyard Builders.”
The show on the DIY Network is actually called “Barnwood Builders” but Hitch had made his point before walking away.
As the series gets set for its final game (7:30 p.m., TV: Fox Sports Midwest; Radio: Y98FM), here’s a sampling of what Blues players were talking about on the day of the biggest game of the season:
Blues captain David Backes was asked if playing in the Olympics for Team USA helps him prepare for a game of this magnitude.
“The excitement and the drive to have a great performance is there regardless if it’s Game 2 or Game 7 or the Olympics.”
Backes insisted, as most of the Blues players have before and throughout this series, that this team has no connection to the past three teams that lost in the first round of the playoffs.
“This year is a different feeling than it’s had in the past,” Backes said. “This group of guys is as tight as it’s ever been. We’ve shown resiliency to fight through adversity in the series and the season. Now we need to show it in a Game 7 against our divisional rivals.”
In other words, Backes and his teammates aren’t here to talk about the past.
“We don’t talk about the past internally in this room,” he said. “We’ve learned lessons and worried about it in the summer. We’ve moved forward and get after it and are better because of that. Those lessons have been learned, those demons have been buried.
“Now we’re moving forward to having great success tonight to write a new story and new chapter where we talk about where we had success in Game 7 in the first round and what that did for our team moving forward and we can perpetuate that moving forward.”
Having been with the Blues now through several years of playoff failures, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk also feels a victory tonight would prove a lot.
He welcomed a chance to play in a Game 7.
“It’s an opportunity that you think of when you’re little,” he said. “You think of Game 7s when you watch them on TV as a little kid ... how intense they’re going to be. Now having the opportunity to play in one is tremendous.
“We haven’t had this opportunity in this locker room before. It’s a great opportunity for all 20 of us to go out there and make our name, to stamp ourselves in history and become one of those guys.”
Shattenkirk said the Blues are desperate to prove something to themselves, the Blackhawks and the rest of the NHL. The Blues’ once solid 3-1 series lead is now a one-game playoff.
“We feel like we haven’t proven anything until we win this game,” he said. “For us, Game 5 or Game 7, we’ll take it in Game 7. I don’t think we expected this series to be easy, we didn’t expect it to be a four- or five-game series. Now we have an opportunity to have a really special night.”
Looking for redemption
Shattenkirk also took the Blues’ Game 6 loss a little more personal, especially since his plus-minus rating of minus-3 was the worst on the team. He was also on the ice for five Chicago goals.
“There’s a lot of pride on my end in playing a big game tonight, especially after Saturday’s game,” Shattenkirk said. “I’m ready to go play for these guys next to me.”
Shattenkirk grew up in the east coast as a New York Rangers fan. He recalled the famous Mark Messier guarantee of a Game 6 victory against the New Jersey Devils that the Rangers won on their way to the 1994 Stanley Cup championship.
The Rangers trailed that series 3-2 and they made good Messier’s guarantee, winning Games 6 and 7 before going on to win it all.
“The Rangers-Devils was a game that was huge,” Shattenkirk said. “Game 7 and stamping their ticket to the final, that was huge when they won it that year. That would probably be it.”
Was Shattenkirk ready to make a Game7 guarantee of his own for Monday night?
“I’m not Mark Messier,” he said. “I’m not one of the top point guys of all-time. I can’t make that guarantee, it doesn’t really hold as much weight.”
Hotel instead of homes for Blues
In a move not seen in recent years, the Blues elected to have their players meet together at a downtown hotel Monday as they prepared for Game 7.
“I haven’t stayed in a hotel in St. Louis in about 10 years, so it will be a new experience,” Backes said. “You cancel out all the distractions, you have a great meal together as a group and get to the rink tonight as a group. We’re going to do everything as a group here and when do that, we have a great success. So away we go.”
Backes was asked if Monday’s Game 7 had the potential to be a defining moment for the franchise. Win and the sins of past first-round playoff failures would be a thing of the past, especially with a win over the Blackhawks.
A loss, especially after having a 3-1 series lead, would bring more doom and gloom and possibly signal many changes.
“I think you’re blowing this out of proportion for what our scope needs to be focused on in this room,” Backes said. “That’s one shift at a time, win your shift, win your battle, win the puck, do good things with it and put the next guy in a good situation to have success.
“You guys can write the stories and history will tell whatever it needs to tell, but what we can control is each little play that’s on the ice. Sticking together as a group, picking each other up and playing one heck of a hockey game to try to secure a series here.”
Edmundson back for Blues
Edmundson, a rookie who played in the first four games of the series, was back in the lineup for Game 7. He replaced Bortuzzo and is expected to be paired with Shattenkirk, with Colton Parayko moving to the third pairing with Carl Gunnarsson.
How did Edmundson greet the news he would be playing in the decisive Game 7?
“I was really happy. When they took me out they said I’d be back in sometime in the playoffs, it wasn’t if, it was just when,” said Edmundson, who averaged just over 11 minutes of ice time in the first four games. “Watching the past two games it was tough on myself, I wanted to be out there and help the guys but I think I kind of wrapped my head around just how much time and space I actually have out there and I can finally relax.
“I’m just looking to have a good time tonight.”
Hitchcock talked about the change.
“He’s a young guy, it’s a great experience for him,” Hitchcock said. “He’s looking forward to it, we’re looking forward to having him in. He caught his breath and he’ll be a good player tonight.”
The main differences between Edmundson and Bortuzzo?
“(Bortuzzo) is probably a little bit better red line in, Eddy is better red line back, (Bortuzzo) a more attacking player back,” Hitchcock said. “But I think this sets up our lefty-righty schedule.”
Edmundson also relished the opportunity to play in his first NHL Game 7.
“Growing up in Canada you’d always watch the playoffs on TV,” Edmundson said, “but once you’re finally in the playoffs you kind of realize how much just actually amped up everybody is, laying it all on the line, because you never know when your last day can be.
“It makes the game a lot (more fun) and a lot more intense.”
Metro-east star with Team USA named MVP
Swansea native Clayton Keller, a star forward for USA Hockey’s national 18-under team, was named Most Valuable Player at the recent Under-18 World Championships. Keller, expected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, was the second-leading scorer in the tournament with four goals and 14 points in just seven games.
It has been another strong season for Keller, who could be just a couple months away from being the metro-east’s first NHL first-round draft pick after racking up 37 goals and 107 points in only 62 games for the U.S. National Team Development Program’s under-18 squad.