Maybe the St. Louis Blues finally have found a way out of the first round of the playoffs.
They are carrying a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. They will be at home for Game 5 at 8:30 p.m. Thursday — a place they have clinched all five of the playoff series when holding a 3-1 lead.
They also are 24-11 in franchise history with potential series clinchers on the line.
Will that be enough to put a wooden stake through the heart of a wily and playoff-proven Blackhawks team with three Stanley Cup titles in six seasons, elite level talent and minus suspended forward Andrew Shaw?
Shaw was suspended for one game and fined $5,000 by the NHL for shouting a homophobic slur near the end of Game 4 and using an obscene gesture to protest a call.
Blues fans may not feel totally secure about the team’s chances given both teams’ recent playoff history, but expect a raucous sellout crowd and electric atmosphere for Game 5 Thursday at Scottrade Center.
I think we’ve smartened up to falling into those traps in previous years of thinking we’ve accomplished something before we’ve accomplished anything.
Blues captain David Backes
“I think we’ve smartened up to falling into those traps in previous years of thinking we’ve accomplished something before we’ve accomplished anything,” said Blues captain David Backes, whose team has gone out of the playoffs in Round 1 for three straight seasons. “In order to win a series, you’ve got to win four games and we’ve only won three, so we’ve got a tall task still ahead of us.”
The Blues gained confidence and momentum thanks to come-from-behind wins in Game 3 and Game 4 at Chicago’s United Center. That included a two-goal game for Hawks’ killer Vladimir Tarasenko on Tuesday in a 4-3 win, giving him 13 goals in 17 career playoff games.
Tarasenko also has 15 goals in 25 games against the Blackhawks, counting regular season and playoffs. He has three in this series and a fourth was wiped out on a video review because of an offsides challenge by the Blackhawks.
Another giant factor in the series has been the stellar goaltending of Blues’ veteran Brian Elliott. He leads the NHL with 144 saves in the playoffs and has fashioned a 3-1 record, 1.70-goals-against average and .954 save percentage.
Don’t overlook the big series by Alex Pietrangelo, whose average ice time of 28 minutes, 48 seconds ranks second among NHL playoff defensemen, or a Blues power play that has converted four of 12 man-advantae opportunties.
Pietrangelo also leads the NHL with 15 blocked shots during the postseason.
Wary confidence, with respect for the ‘Hawks
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock looked beyond the 3-1 series lead and said the teams have been virtually even.
Each game has been decided by one goal, including the Blues’ 1-0 overtime victory in Game 1.
We approach this game in a little bit of a different way, knowing that we have to play our best game of the series if we want to clinch this series.
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk
“Not much difference in this series, other than we’ve got a 3-1 lead,” Hitchcock said. “The scoring chances are the same, the quality chances are the same, the red zone chances are the same. Both teams power play has a bead on the other team’s penalty killing. Both goaltenders have been excellent.
“Not much difference right now. We’ve been able to score timely goals ,which has really helped us.”
Looking for a big difference between this Blues club and others that have experienced playoff flame-outs the last three years?
It’s in the way the players have responded to adversity. Bad calls that have gone against them, tough goals, crazy sequences and video reviews that didn’t go their way.
To their credit, this Blues bunch hasn’t blinked and is on the verge of pushing the defending Stanley Cup champs out of the playoffs. While the Blues have been mostly disciplined, it has been Shaw and his teammates — like goaltender Corey Crawford and star forward Patrick Kane — losing their cool at times during the series.
In addition, the ‘Hawks top two scorers —Kane and Jonathan Toews — have been held without a goal, though they have combined for six assists.
The ‘Hawks overcame a 3-1 playoff deficit in 2013 against Detroit, then nearly did it again in the 2014 Western Conference finals before losing in Game 7 to the Los Angeles Kings.
“I don’t know if there’s extra pressure,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “When you’re down 3-1, I think it shifts and everybody wants to win in the worst way. That’s why we’ve got to come with that attitude and appetite tomorrow night. But I don’t think it’s any different than it’s been in other years.”
It is to the Blues, who have reached the second round of the playoffs only twice since 2002.
“We approach this game in a little bit of a different way, knowing that we have to play our best game of the series if we want to clinch this series,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “They’re a desperate hockey team and if we can match that desperation, I think it will only do great things for us.
“They’re a team that we don’t want to let hang around and the faster that we can end this series ... if it’s (Thursday) night, good on us — because we really don’t want to be playing against the defending Stanley Cup champions too often.”