When the St. Louis Blues found themselves matched up against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the 2016 Central Division semifinals, another early exit seemed likely. A bit of role reversal has set in after they completed their fourth game Tuesday, April 19.
The three-time champions are on the ropes against the franchise that has won only a single series since 2002. After winning both games in Chicago, the thought that the series could end Thursday in St. Louis was previously only imaginable with the opposite result.
Believe it. The Blackhawks have either had no answer for Vladimir Tarasenko or Brian Elliott in each game of the series.
The series started off on script. With Duncan Keith serving the last game of his suspension, the Blues had to take care of business on their home ice.
Elliott absolutely stole that game, but Chicago looked better even without Keith. When he returned to lead his team to victory in the next game, St. Louis looked done.
The thing is, Tarasenko scored in that game which would have probably been won by the Blues had another of his goals not been overturned on an offsides challenge. In hindsight, it looks like the Blackhawks won what happened to be a road game on a technicality.
He scored twice again Tuesday to give him 13 goals in 17 career Stanley Cup playoff games. That was enough to overcome Chicago’s relative offensive outburst of three goals against Elliott, who has turned away at least 12 of every 13 shots (.929 save percentage) in each game for a 1.70 goals-against average and .954 save percentage over the 2016 Central Division semifinals.
Elliott gave up two goals on 28 shots in his only loss, but he was pulled allowing the Blackhawks an empty-net goal because of Tarasenko’s disallowed goal. The Blues got a second goal with two seconds left in that game to establish the eventual pattern of scoring one more in each game of the series than the last.
Both St. Louis wins in Chicago were comebacks from third period deficits, suggesting the team has more ability to overcome adversity than past ones. The increase in scoring every game also suggests a team that is figuring out its opponent.
If that scoring trend continues and Elliot’s minimum save percentage were to both hold, the Blackhawks would need 78 shots to score more than the five goals the Blues are due to score. It seems far more likely one of the other trends can be broken, but if not a little balance may come to this Central Division rivalry.
Chicago is getting shots to the net but is going to need do a better job with traffic and redirections to beat Elliott with the way he is playing. Defenders should be able to contain Tarasenko given all their players good in their own end and the lack of other St. Louis threats to focus on.
Sometimes when faced with elimination, a team’s true character shows as it did when the San Jose Sharks had the Los Angeles Kings on the ropes in 2014. Unless a shift like that happens, the three-time Stanley Cup champions are going to be beaten in the Central Division semifinals by a team that rarely makes it out of April.