The St. Louis Blues are already on the ropes. Their two biggest advantages against the Chicago Blackhawks are gone after just the second game of the Central Division semifinals Friday, April 15.
With one postseason series win since 2002, St. Louis was matched up against the defending Stanley Cup champions right off the bat. Those struggles are the antithesis of Chicago’s 16-4 series record and three titles over the last eight postseasons.
The Blackhawks do not only have more experience to call upon because of rising to the occasion. They have three Stanley Cups because their core is superior not only in ability but number to most if not all the league during each of those years.
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and until recently Marian Hossa were going to better than their top opposing forwards. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were going to be better than the top defensemen on the other end.
The rest of the scoring lines and second pair are always filled by capable players, whether veterans like Brian Campbell or up-and-coming young players like Artemi Panarin. The Blues have plenty of those players to fill out the top pairs or scoring lines, but Vladimir Tarasenko is the only one even in the same class as core Blackhawks.
However, St. Louis finished in second place in the Central Division to earn home-ice advantage in this round because of superior physicality and great team depth. Another door opened with a one-game reprieve from the imbalance of top players when Chicago’s Conn Smythe and Norris Trophy winner was suspended for six games with five left in the 2015-16 NHL season.
The Blues were outplayed in the only game without Duncan Keith, but Brian Elliott stole a 1-0 overtime win on a fluke goal Wednesday. As soon as they lost that advantage ahead of Friday’s game, they lost home-ice advantage at the end of it.
Ken Hitchcock was not happy about a goal overturned when the Blackhawks challenged for offsides, but lodged his officiating complaints in the backdoor by suggesting his players need to fight through calls that tend to go toward three-time Stanley Cup champions. Maybe his team can eek out an extra win through his lobbying, but he better figure out how to increase scoring because Elliott is not likely to maintain his .969 save percentage.
In almost 130 minutes at home, St. Louis has scored just three goals. That is the same number Chicago got on the road in its only game with Keith, who showed little sign of rust in playing over half the game and scoring two points on four shots and nine attempts with a giveaway, takeaway, block and hit.
The game was scoreless well past the midpoint before Jaden Schwartz skated in with the puck from Jori Lehtera and fed Tarasenko on the rush for a goal Corey Crawford could not slide across in time to stop. It looked like that was going to hold into the third period until the Blackhawks were fortunate to get an icing call to set up an offensive zone faceoff with under 10 seconds remaining in the second.
Toews won the draw to Kane, who fed Keith for a shot through a screen provided by Andrew Shaw that went in with four seconds left before intermission. Once Elliott gave up that first goal of the Central Division semifinals, the Blues had to find a way to score to even stay in the series.
When Chicago coach Joel Quenneville successfully challenged an apparent goal allowed over 12 minutes into the third, the game began to slip away from St. Louis. It would have been Tarasenko’s second goal, and perhaps frustration played into his slashing penalty less than a minute later.
On the ensuing power play, Kane fed Brent Seabrook for a shot that Andrew Shaw tipped in to take the lead with 4:19 to go. Keith assisted Panarin on the empty-net goal that turned out to be the winner when St. Louis blue-liner Kevin Shattenkirk blasted home a David Backes faceoff win with two seconds left.
It was a blown opportunity for a team with too many reasons to doubt themselves to have an advantage against the three-time Stanley Cup champions. Now that Keith is not only back but in a groove, the Blues will be lucky to get another win in the Central Division semifinals…when hosting the first two games of a series against the Blackhawks, the old adage that if you’re even, they’re leaving applies.