CHICAGO — It’s a short turnaround to today’s matinee in the United Center after Friday night’s overtime thriller in the shadow of the Gateway Arch. So neither the Blackhawks nor the St. Louis Blues skated Saturday. Good idea.
The off day was an opportunity for both teams to catch their breath before the new Madhouse on Madison goes off the deep end today looking for a fourth straight win in the series and a Chicago clincher.
So it’s a pretty good time to step back in this space too and appreciate what the Blackhawks have been doing the last few years. It’s amazing stuff.
For starters, Chicago is trying to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champion since Detroit did it in 1997 and 1998. And if they do it, the Blackhawks would be the first three-time winner in the post-2000 era.
A first-round win over a 111-point St. Louis team would make Chicago a huge favorite in the next round over either Colorado or Minnesota and create a big path to another Western Conference final.
A quick study of the Blackhawks’ last five playoff years yields some incredible numbers.
In Games One–Three of each series dating to 2010, the Blackhawks have a pedestrian record of 16-17. In Games Four–Seven, they are 24-6 — including 13-3 on the road.
In overtime, they are just 4-7 in Games One-Three. In Games Four-Seven, they are 9-2.
And here’s a real cautionary tale for the Blues today: Under Joel Quenneville, Chicago is 8-1 in Game Six – and 6-0 when a series can be clinched.
“We’re a competitive bunch. We’re a proud bunch,” Quenneville said here Saturday. “We find ways to overcome adversity … found a way to fight back but there’s a lot of work still to be done in this series.”
It’s simple to see why. I call it Winning Time.
When you have players who thrive in the spotlight, good things happen. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have scored overtime goals in the last two games. Duncan Keith has been a stalwart on defense, Corey Crawford the same in goal.
“Sometimes it’s about bounces,” Toews said after Friday’s game. “But for us, it’s really about belief and working for those bounces.”
“We feel we want to get better each and every game in the series,” Quenneville said. “We’ve got guys who like to rise to the challenge in big games. They’ve proven that with their history. They get excited in that situation. That experience can really be beneficial.”
Close Chicago observers say this series is much like last year’s second-rounder with Detroit, which saw the Blackhawks fall into a 3-1 hole and need overtime in Game Seven to survive and advance.
“I definitely think so,” winger Bryan Bickell, one of three players made available to the media, said Saturday. “I know we weren’t playing good hockey in the first couple games of the Detroit series, but every game we were getting better and better. That Detroit series got us that spark and kind of carried us through the later rounds. We have the same feel now.”
And the Blackhawks get a huge addition today with the return of defenseman Brent Seabrook, who sat out a three-game suspension for his vicious head shot on St. Louis captain David Backes in Game Two.
“I know we’re amped up and I know our fans are going to be amped up,” said Bickell.
The Blues are in quite a pickle. A month ago, Ryan Miller was 7-0-1 in his first eight games since coming from the Sabres, and St. Louis was poised to win the Presidents’ Trophy. Then the Blues collapsed down the stretch to blow the Central Division and fell into the matchup with Chicago.
Miller has yet to have a lights-out game in this series. Now would sure be a good time. His summer free-agent bonanza might hang in the balance.
“We’re probably gonna have to steal a game to bring this thing back,” coach Ken Hitchcock said Saturday. “So he’s gonna have to be part of the steal.”
For the Blues, this series is following a stunningly similar pattern to their first-round collapse last year against the Los Angeles Kings.
St. Louis won the first two games of that set at home, just like it did here, and then dropped four straight. But the similarities are even more unbelievable. Consider the series rundowns:
• Game One: Alex Steen scored overtime winners in both series.
• Game Two: Barrett Jackman scored the game-winning goal in both, this year’s coming in overtime.
• Game Three: The Blues outshot the Kings and Blackhawks by nine but lost both games by shutout.
• Game Four: The Blues blow a late 3-2 lead and lose, 4-3, to even the series.
• Game Five: Alex Pietrangelo scores the game-tying goal, his first of the playoffs, and gets assisted by Jaden Schwartz. But the Blues lose in OT, 3-2.
• Game Six: The Blues lost to the Kings, 2-1, and were eliminated.
That’s downright eerie. Still, Hitchcock was upbeat about his team’s challenge when he met with St. Louis beat writers Saturday.
“We have a chance to write our own legacy,” Hitchcock said. “Everybody is probably writing, ‘Here they go again. They’re challenging the top teams, but can they get through the top teams?’ Everybody is going to write that stuff.
“But we have a chance to write the message that you guys have to print, so it’s in our control. It’s not in ‘what’s going to get printed’ control, it’s in our control. And I want to see us embrace this. … We just can’t keep pushing up against the wall. We’ve got a real opportunity to push through the wall here.”
But when you study Chicago’s recent history, there’s a pretty good chance the Blues might be running into a wall and going nowhere.