HAZELWOOD, Mo. – So have you lost a lot of sleep? Just can’t turn the TV off with all these wild finishes and all these crazy overtime games?
I’m with you. The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is always about the wildest one. Teams are still fresh, and some spent the end of the regular season getting healthy. Others you didn’t expect to do much – here’s looking at you, Flying Lindy Ruffs in Dallas and rebellious Blue Jackets of Columbus – are riding the wave of their exciting regular-season pushes.
The big boys are shaking their heads. The Ducks and Penguins have found real trouble and are stunned to be in 2-2 deadlocks. The Kings entered Thursday’s late game in a 3-0 hole against the Sharks. The 101-point Lightning are already gone in four straight.
And that brings us to what’s really the Center of the Hockey Universe in this round.
Sorry, Montreal. Round one is all about Chicago and St. Louis.
Buckle up. It’s 2-2. It’s a best-of-three starting tonight in Scottrade Center between the 107-point, defending champion Blackhawks and the 111-point Blues.
Memo to the Hockey Gods: Whoever wins tonight must – and I mean must – lose Game Six Sunday in the United Center. We must have this go to Game Seven. It’s been that good.
Three overtime thrillers producing a one-goal difference between the teams through four games. There’s been the breakout of wondrous Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, the Russian captain from the gold medal team at the 2011 World Junior Championships in Buffalo. There have been five goals scored by the Blues in the final 1:45 of a period, including Tarasenko’s dramatic tying tally with 6.4 seconds left in Game Two.
There was the crotch grab by Hawks coach Joel Quenneville that cost him a $25,000 fine, and there was the hideous hit by Chicago’s Brent Seabrook that earned a suspension, probably rendered Blues captain David Backes out again tonight and forever entered the taunt “wakey wakey” into hockey’s lexicon.
In Buffalo, so much of the attention is focused on Patrick Kane and Ryan Miller. But in the rest of North America, this is just dynamite hockey the likes of which we rarely see so soon in the playoffs.
“It’s just so rewarding to watch and participate in this kind of series,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock mused late Thursday afternoon at the team’s practice facility.
Hitchcock’s Blues erased a two-goal deficit in Wednesday’s overtime loss in Chicago, one of four teams to come back from at least two goals on the same night. It’s already happened eight times in this playoffs entering Thursday. Crazy.
“The first series is so emotional, it’s all about controlling the chaos,” Hitchcock said. “It is chaotic. It settles down as players get tired and banged up, but it’s really chaotic right now.”
Think of how close the Blues were to having a stranglehold on this thing Wednesday night. Up by a goal with four minutes left in regulation. Simply needing a goal from anyone in overtime.
It would have been a 3-1 lead at home tonight with a roaring crowd on hand waiting to put the final hammer down on the defending Cup champs. And now? Total tossup. “Nobody’s panicking. We’re not in a bad spot,” said St. Louis defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. “It’s tied, we still have home ice and we still have a good opportunity here.”
As teams are allowed to when there’s optional practice days, especially later in a series, there was limited player availability as only four Blues met the media Thursday. Neither Miller nor Steve Ott spoke.
Miller has been riding the roller coaster in this series. Three goals on the first seven shots in Game One and then 35 straight saves in a triple-overtime victory. A terrible first goal to Jonathan Toews in Game Three that was all the Hawks needed in a 2-0 victory. And a tough overtime game-winner to Kane in Game Four.
That was a sick shot and Miller hardly made a Marc-Andre Fleury kind of gaffe. But I need my goalie to make that save in that spot, and it would have been nice if defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk hadn’t kept backing into Miller’s space, too. Miller has a 2.24 goals-against average and .914 save percentage while Chicago’s Corey Crawford is at 2.21/.927. A bad goal a game isn’t going to cut it for Miller right now.
The softie he yielded to Jonathan Toews in Game Three basically cost his team a game. And despite the fact Miller gave up four goals on his final 21 shots in Game Four and looked to be fighting the puck prior to Kane’s winner, Hitchcock has plenty of other things on his mind.
“He’s the least of my worries right now,” Hitchcock said. “I know he’s gonna play and I know he’s gonna play well. So is Crawford. They’re not going to be negative factors for either team.”
Buffalo fans, of course, have a little bit of different rooting interest in this one. The Sabres, remember, get the Blues’ first-round pick for Miller if St. Louis gets to the Western Conference final. Looks shaky at this point.
The Blues have been a 100-point team for three straight years, if you give them a pro-rated 102 for last year’s lockout season. But they lost in five games to Los Angeles in the second round in 2012 and fell to the Kings in six games in the first round last year – after winning the first two at home. Just like in this series.
This year is different, they say. T.J. Oshie and Tarasenko have had their breakout years, Alex Pietrangelo has become a Norris Trophy-level defenseman and the rental of Miller was clearly done with a Cup in mind.
“We’re trying to slay the dragon, you can say,” Hitchcock said of the Hawks. “We’re trying to prove we belong in that top echelon. We’ve been in this situation two years in a row, and we want to push through and come out the other side. We’re pouring everything we can into it.
“It’s a shame someone has got to lose this series because of what both organizations are putting into this thing right now. But somebody’s gotta go down, and I’d rather it be them than us.”