We all knew that the first-round matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues would turn out to be a scintillating one consumed by passion. Two longtime Central Division rivals exerting as much energy as possible hoping to out-duel one another, what else did you expect? The series was destined to be decided by the final period and it was. Led by goaltender Brian Elliott, the Blues went from pretenders to contenders after vanquishing the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks in seven games.
When I previewed the series two weeks ago, I analyzed three critical storylines that would be brought to light by the conclusion of the series. Let’s revisit them once again, shall we?
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues Series Recap
The Physical and Mental Tolls
Longtime Blues fans are well aware of their favorite team cracking under the pressure when it is amplified in the postseason. St. Louis had been eliminated in the first round in the past three seasons while Chicago had come off its third Stanley Cup title in six years. It wasn’t exactly an easy draw.
From top to bottom, the Blues were tested physically and emotionally throughout their bout with the Blackhawks. Ken Hitchcock made headlines after saying that he hoped his club could average “70 hits” a game, which spread through the media like wildfire. Chicago, well-aware that the grinding style of hockey plays directly into their strengths, welcomed Hitch’s claim.
However, St. Louis continually battered the Blackhawks whenever they got a chance too which helped fuel their transition game and created turnovers that led to scoring chances. They outhit the Hawks in every game of the series, mostly by a wide margin (283-206 overall). Believe it or not, this strategy allowed the Blues to impose a defense where it was impossible to leave unscathed when seeking a scoring chance. Chicago’s stars were the biggest targets; Jonathan Toews suffered his first goalless postseason while Art Ross Trophy winner Patrick Kane scored only once. Frustration certainly seeped into the minds of those two and uncharacteristically affected them briefly during the series.
Now on to the psychological aspect. The Blues faced adversity a number of times, especially in Game 4 when Corey Crawford “attacked” rookie Robby Fabbri after he was pushed into the netminder by Toews. Crawford came out of the scrum without an instigator penalty and the Blackhawks were put on the power play (somehow). The Hawks scored on that man-advantage, giving them a 2-1 lead in the second period. Instead of letting what had just transpired distort the objective at hand (like what they had done in previous postseasons), the Blues rallied for three unanswered goals and held on for a 4-3 win in the United Center.
In Game 7, Jori Lehtera and Colton Parayko tallied in the first period to give the Blues a 2-0 lead. The lead was squandered in the second period when Andrew Shaw scored his team-leading fourth goal of the series after a Marian Hossa goal in the first. St. Louis didn’t let it affect their game-plan as they weathered the storm and eventually won the series-deciding game thanks to Troy Brouwer’s first playoff goal as a Blue.
Who can forget the two controversial calls resulting in a goal being taken away from the Blues and adding one to Chicago’s total in the third period of Game 2, as well? This year’s team led by Ken Hitchcock proved that they were resilient and maintained a belief that they could beat anybody.
Special Teams Need to Be Special
With two hockey teams closely matched at even-strength, there was no doubt that games would be decided by the special teams groupings. Momentum-shifting goals came throughout the series where teams were able to push the pace further after striking. In Game 2, Andrew Shaw scored the GWG on the power play in the third period after Vladimir Tarasenko took an ill-advised slashing penalty moments earlier. The Hawks held on to tie the series.
St. Louis then turned to their own PP unit in Game 3 to take back control of the series, converting on 2-out-of-3 chances, including Jaden Schwartz’s eventual winning goal five minutes into the final frame. The Blues went 2-for-4 in Game 4, courtesy of Tarasenko and Schwartz, which aided another comeback effort in the Windy City.
Hossa scored a shorthanded goal in Game 5 to draw first blood, sucking the life out of the previously raucous Scottrade Center. Chicago later killed off a careless too many men on the ice penalty in the third period to preserve a tied score.
Chicago kept the good times rolling in their home arena two nights later. They went 2-for-3 on the PP in Game 6, including an insurance tally by Shaw that sealed the game and sent the series back to St. Louis. In total, the Blackhawks converted on 31.6% of their power plays while the Blues weren’t far behind at 27.8%.
Both teams had crucial penalty kills at various points of the series, but Chicago’s inability to stop the “STL” line from producing was their downfall when attempting to protect a lead. Same goes for St. Louis in Game 7, when Shaw (you guessed it) scored to tie the game up at two goals apiece. However, that was the only chance the Hawks would get as the Blues managed their 5-on-5 play better as the game went along.
I said that either Brian Elliott or Corey Crawford would steal the series for their respective team and it was the Moose who took that storyline and ran with it. The 31-year-old Elliott was forced to make 236 saves in the seven-game series against Chicago and was downright spectacular in the early contests. A 35-save shutout in Game 1 was followed up by 44 and 39-save efforts in Games 3 and 4 to put the Blues in a terrific spot to close out the series in Game 5.
Elliott allowed nine goals in the next two games, but his defense was not doing him any favors, turning the puck over in their own zone early and often. In his first ever Game 7, the 291st overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft was phenomenal, making 31 saves to put the final nail into the Hawks coffin with certainty.
Corey Crawford had his moments of flashiness and performed just as well as Elliott did at various points of the series. He stole Game 2 after making 29 stops in a 2-1 win that shifted the series over to Chicago. Although he dropped his next two games, the Montreal, QC native was notably sharp.
When the Hawks were leading in the second period of Game 3, Crawford robbed Lehtera and Tarasenko (twice) at point-blank range. It was an incredible performance that brought 22,000+ fans to their feet. In Game 5, with his back against the wall, Crawford made several stops in overtime to keep his team’s season alive. Game 7 was a similar story; his blocker save on Robby Fabbri in the second period could have been his most impressive of the postseason. He continually fought when his team failed to follow suit, never allowing St. Louis to run away with the hockey game.
This was a goaltending battle at its finest with both goalies constantly one-upping the other with jaw-dropping plays. It’s exactly what you expected out of this series after witnessing Elliott and Crawford step up their games in the regular season. But, it was Elliott’s time to shine after being passed over repeatedly by the Blues coaching staff.
The Moose was loose in St. Louis for Game 7, allowing the Blues to advance to the second round for the first time since 2012. Defeating the defending Stanley Cup champions was invigorating and a benchmark for the franchise, but it’s only going to get tougher in the following rounds.
The Blues next opponent lies in the heart of Texas against the Central Division winner, the Dallas Stars.