The comparisons can’t be avoided at this point. This first round playoff series between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks is looking like last year’s battle with The Blues and the Los Angeles Kings in a number of ways. The festering kind of consistency that no team wants to find is the brand that labels you a potential loser. Allow me to clear the memory for those who strive hard to forget the past or simply can’t accept the reality of Sunday’s Game 6 predicament.
Last year, the Blues won the the first two games by the score of 2-1 in overtime over Jonathan Quick and the Kings. In Game 3, The Kings shut out the Blues 1-0. That’s right Blues fans. Brian Elliot played like a stallion through 3 games, allowing only 3 goals and seemed to be in control. Game 4 involved the most scoring, with the Kings edging the Blues 4-3 in LA to even the series at 2 games. In Game 5, the game went to overtime and the Blues lost 3-2. Game 6 saw Quick befuddle the Blues completely and The Kings won 2-1 and advanced.
So how does that compare to this series? The Blues and Blackhawks scored a lot goals in the first two games, totaling 14 to last year’s 6. The Hawks shut out St. Louis 2-0 in Game 3, but got the second tally on an empty netter. In Game 4, the game was back and forth, with the teams trading leads and it went to overtime for a Hawks 4-3 win. In Game 5, the Hawks edged the Blues again in overtime, 3-2. Sure, Steen and Jackman scored the game winners against the Kings and Hawks in Games 1 and 2, but those are the end of the lookalikes.
It’s not easy to look at the similarities. Trust me. However, in order to examine the full crime scene, one must look at every piece of detail they have. One huge difference is the presence of Quick in net last year and every game(high score or not) seemed to be an uphill battle with this goalie facing down the Blues. He was amazing and even the goals he allowed seemed to be a fluke. Corey Crawford isn’t in Quick’s league when it comes to the ability to completely shut down a team over an entire series, but he earned a fine 34 save shutout in Game 3 and has made a few more key stops than Ryan Miller. The goals allowed are 14 to 13 in favor of Crawford. Very close. The details show that each goalie has made a number of great saves. Crawford has made a few more than Miller and that is how close this series is. It’s more than goalies but that is a good place to start.
What is dogging the Blues and caused them to blow another 2-0 series lead? Back to back years have seen the Blues take a sizable lead in the series and proceed to give it up. Against the Kings, it seemed like they just got outplayed by a goalie and dominated by a pesky team of hustlers. This time, the Stanley Cup Champion Hawks stand in front of them facing down predictions, dynasty status and more. The Blues were always David in this matchup with Goliath. That fact can’t be forgotten. It’s not an excuse but a mere reason. The Blues are facing the best and haven’t played a bad game yet. They are simply getting beat up to this point overall by the most slim of margins. There is more to the story so let’s get to it.
What did happen though?
*The Big Guns haven’t been stopped by the Blues. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the Hawks two best players, have all three of Chicago’s winning goals. In Game 4, The Blues gave Kane too much space and he burned them. In Game’s 3 and 5, Toews used the minimal space on the ice for two open looks at Miller and scored on each. In Game 5, Barrett Jackman did put the clamps on Kane, abusing him at every turn and moment he could without drawing numerous penalties. Toews, however, sprung loose and that is how we get to Sunday’s Game 6.
*The Blues big guns haven’t been very effective. T.J. Oshie, David Backes and Alex Steen have totaled 2 goals so far. Granted, the line has only been together for 2+ games but still, the production is down from the most powerful scoring line all season. Oshie scored an amazing goal from his knees Friday, but spent the initial two games finding his footing after 10 days away. Steen scored the game winner in Game 1, but has been incapable of finding the net since. Backes played a great Game 1 and assisted on Steen’s winner, but was knocked out in Game 2 by Brent Seabrook and missed the next two games. While he looked good last night, Backes isn’t the scoring kind yet this series.
*Where would the Blues be without Vladimir Tarasenko’s contributions? Finished. The young Russian dazzles with his ability to find open lines in the shooting circles and firing wrist shots into the smallest corners of the net. Tarasenko’s defense has improved this year as well, which has found him more time on the power play and in overtime. If there is one reason to be optimistic about Game 6 tomorrow, it’s the fact that the Blues have this kid and the Hawks don’t. He is deadly with the stick and confident as a blade.
*Patrik Berglund, anyone? Sure he is playing hurt but this is the playoffs. Everyone is bruised and beaten up. Brett Hull had a torn groin and virtually no legs and he won a Cup with the Stars. Berglund’s a hockey player and there are no excuses in this walk of life.
*Ryan Miller must rise to the occasion. Hold on as I listen for the echoes across the internet universe of this statement. Since the moment he walked into Scottrade as a member of the Blues, Miller has heard “rise to the occasion” more times than one should. However, that’s his arrival theme. Be the guy the Blues desire to win it all. So far, Miller has allowed 14 goals in 5 games and faced less shots than Crawford. He has come up huge in several moments and gave the Blues a chance to win in Game 3 when Toews soft wrist shot was the lone tally. Miller has played very well for a regular goalie. His arrival status suggests a higher peak of play. I am not sure how Elliott(or Halak) would have fared against this Blackhawks attack over 6 games. The Miller trade has a right to be scrutinized but I still think it was a good move, win or lose Sunday for St. Louis. I will say this. He must play better, because the scrutiny won’t end. He can play out of his mind in Game 6 and 7, but if he flunks the next series, fans will frown. That’s the constant predicament of being Ryan Miller in this town. He will be compared to Jaro Halak whether he likes it or not. If you aren’t the savior, who are you?
Here is what I know. The Blues played great in their 3 losses and decent in their two wins. The Hawks played great in their 2 losses and didn’t see much detraction from Seabrook’s three game absence. The Blues step into the United Center tomorrow with their backs against the wall and their season on the line. Any similarities to last year’s Kings series can be cut short with a win. The Blues can force Game 7 and bring the series back to a place they have played amazing hockey at. In order to get there, they will have to walk into the lions den on Sunday, in front of 22,000 loud maniacs, and pull an upset.
You could have asked me after Game 2 if the series would be short and the answer would be no. The Blues lost their last six games of the season but fans knew they had more in store. The Hawks were Stanley Cup champions but didn’t fare well against St. Louis playing at their best this past season. Each team has suffered injuries. The time has come to decide who moves on and who goes home. The Blackhawks have won 2 Stanley Cups in recent memory and carry the expectation of deep playoff runs. The Blues are trying to win their first Stanley Cup and fulfill the dreams of hundreds of thousands of Blues fans who came back after two lockouts in the last decade to pack Scottrade Center.
Deja vu can’t be fully proven or denied. The goal Sunday for the Blues is to stand on the shoulders of their goaltender and push back against it as hard as they can.