By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) — So that’s why Stan Bowman barely flinched when the Blues traded for Ryan Miller in March.
The Blackhawks general manager was confident in his group, trusting that they were better than St. Louis, despite what the standings said.
That thinking paid off Sunday afternoon at the United Center, where the Blackhawks beat the Blues for the fourth straight time, sending Miller and his teammates home for the offseason.
The Blackhawks were indeed the better team all along, and only faltered when they got in their own way. That happened in the first two games of their opening round series against the Blues, especially in Game 2 — arguably the most undisciplined game the Hawks have ever played under Joel Quenneville.
And it actually happened again in the second period Sunday, when the Blackhawks seemingly spent the entire 20 minutes in the penalty box. It’s not easy to play your puck-possessing style with only four guys on the ice.
“We were definitely lucky to be 1-1 going into the third period,” head coach Joel Quenneville admitted.
But goaltender Corey Crawford and the Blackhawks’ penalty killing unit — both of which Quenneville credited for winning the series — came through with six stops on six Blues’ power plays, keeping the Hawks in the game.
And then the Blackhawks finally got their own power play, which they didn’t waste. 44 seconds into the third period, Jonathan Toews sniped a shot past Miller, scoring his third game-winning goal of the series. Smelling blood, the Blackhawks kept the pressure on, and Sharp came through with his first goal of the series 1:17 later, despite being hooked by Kevin Shattenkirk on the breakaway.
It was a moment that made you understand Bowman’s nonchalant reaction to the Miller trade.
“The goal was a backbreaker,” Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said, refusing to address whether or not it was one he thought Miller should have stopped.
Maybe he saw a ghost, but Miller was faked out by something on the play, allowing Sharp to slide the puck past him after taking Shattenkirk’s stick to the face.
From there the rout was on, as Andrew Shaw and Duncan Keith added goals to finish off a 5-1 Blackhawks victory.
“They were dominating the first 40 minutes there and we came back with maybe our best period of the year,” Quenneville said.
But the third period of Sunday’s Game 6 was about the only time during the series that things came easy for the Blackhawks. The majority of the six games were played with no more than a one-goal differential — against a team that was good enough to win the Western Conference.
“It doesn’t get any more difficult than that,” Toews said about the series, adding that it was toughest first round series the Blackhawks have had since his time with the team.
“We had to be good. That’s a good hockey team,” Quenneville said. “There’s no easy game, there’s no easy shifts, every game is a battle. We just went through six battles and we’re fortunate to be ahead.”
It was a far cry from the start of last year’s Stanley Cup run, when the Blackhawks slept-walked through an opening round series against the Wild before falling behind 3-1 against the Red Wings. The Blackhawks knew they wouldn’t survive past the first round if they got off to a similar start this year and now they hope the way they were tested against the Blues will help them the rest of the way.
“I think the intensity and the emotion of getting through this first round was healthy for our team and we should progress off of these levels,” Quenneville said.
Theoretically, they should — a scary thought for the rest of the West.
Adam Hoge is a senior writer for CBSChicago.com and a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.