So the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks are going to a game seven, does that really surprise anyone? Yes the Blues jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the series. Yes they held a 3-1 lead in game six with a chance to eliminate the defending Stanley Cup Champions. But yes we are heading to a game seven. The Blues and Blackhawks have played 11 times this season with eight games being decided by one goal and five of those games going into overtime. Saturday’s 6-3 game six win by the Blackhawks was the biggest win of the season by either team in terms of goal differential. So of course this season will come down to a game seven between these two teams.
So how did we get here? The Blues had shown resiliency all season, and series long. Overcoming bad luck (offsides), bad officials (poor Robby Fabri), and the defending Stanley Cup Champion; to take a 3-1 lead in the series. The Blues were coming off back to back come from behind wins in Chicago with an attempt to close it out in game five at home. The Blues played probably their best game of the series in game five only to see the Blackhawks win in overtime. Then the Blackhawks did their best impersonation of the Blues this series and came storming back to even the series up in game six.
What changed? How have the Blues gone from on the verge of knocking out their rivals to stumbling back on their heels? Obviously this series was not going to be easy for either team. Both teams have looked bad, and both teams have looked good. But neither has put together a complete game. That just is not going to happen when two of the best teams in the NHL meet up. They are going to force each other out of their typical play.
As we head into the elimination game I still hold to the belief that much of this blame falls upon Ken Hitchcock. I was at the front of the line last off-season saying he should be gone. I felt his style was out-dated for today’s NHL (you can look at all of the numbers that back this up HERE). Even when the Blues were up 3-1 in this series I was questioning his style. In particular, the lack of ice time for Vladimir Tarasenko; a story which has taken on attention recently only because the series is tied.
Tarasenko has just the sixth most amount of minutes this postseason among Blues forwards, and in the last two games (both losses) he is just seventh. This for a player that is your best offensive weapon and has the best point per game ratio in NHL playoff history to start their career. Tarasenko, one of the deadliest shooters in the NHL, is even just sixth in Power Play time this series. Hitchcock may not be sold on Tarasenko’s defense but there is absolutely NO WAY he should not be receiving the most power play minutes.
Yes Tarasenko is an elite offensive player, what about his defense? He has improved his defensive game greatly since first coming to the league and is often one of the best back checkers for the Blues. And in fact according to Stats Inc., the Blues are actually out shooting the Blackhawks by 25 shots when Tarasenko is on the ice this series.
So why is he being treated like he is a third line forward instead of the elite player that he is? This falls on Hitchcock. His style of defense first, big bodied players; cycling the puck just is an antiquated style. It doesn’t work anymore. Game six was a prime example. The Blues go up 3-1 in the first period, yes with Tarasenko scoring one of those goals and nearly having another as his shot went off the keepers’ shoulder and then post. But then after that Tarasenko sees the ice for four-minutes in the second period as the Blackhawks come storming back. It was too little too late as Hitchcock put Tarasenko on the ice for eight-minutes in the third, nearly matching his previous two periods combined.
Here is what I have seen this series. Hitchcock wanted a bigger, bruising team. It worked early on, the Blues were the more physical team. But that’s okay with the Blackhawks. They ranked among the bottom in the NHL in hits this season. The Blackhawks have some big players but they are also fast (look at Hossa and Panarin). How many times have you seen the Blackhawks wingers move to the outside along the boards to get into the Blues zone? That forces the Blues defense wide and guess what, it opens up the long stretch pass which is so effective for Chicago.
Hitchcock is stuck with thinking that big bodies wear other teams down. That is true but in the playoffs; the adrenaline, the grit, the will to win…that overshadows any tiring body. Will can overcome most anything going on with the body in terms of fatigue. So the belief that the Blues will wear down the Blackhawks by hitting them “70 times a game” was always fools gold. Yes the Blues were up 3-1, but was it really because of how they had been playing? Or maybe it was because of the quick shot of Tarasenko, hot goaltending from Brian Elliott, and a lucky goal from David Backes?
In this series, and all season long, the Blues have shown their fight. Now on home ice, in front of their fans who Bleed Blue; they need to do it one more time in this series. This is more than just a game seven between the Blues and Blackhawks. This is not a winner take all game. This is Hitchcock and maybe Doug Armstrong’s job on the line game. This is a possibly the last time in the Blue note for David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk game. This is old school ways vs. playing your best players game. This is a win or goodbye game.