By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The United Center roar reigns ever present when the Blackhawks cross the blue line on the attack. Playoff hockey brings out its best.
So often Sunday, that raucous sound resonated through the rafters as Patrick Kane or Artemi Panarin skated into the zone. Their skill was on full display circling and shifting before the eyes of Blues goaltender Brian Elliott. The Blackhawks’ playoff level had been activated, often leaving the Blues desperate in their defensive zone.
“Quite frankly, we looked like the Washington Generals a few times,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said.
While the Blackhawks’ immense talent was clear in Game 3, the breaks were absent — a deflection off Michal Rozsival and past Corey Crawford for the Blues’ tying goal, an Andrew Ladd shot that banked off two posts and out.
Fortunes weren’t on the Blackhawks’ side in their 3-2 loss to the Blues in Game 3 of the first-round series, but there’s also the fact that this team from St. Louis is different — much better — than groups of the past that have floundered in the playoffs.
These Blues still play physical hockey and often commit boneheaded penalties, but they’re good enough to overcome it and win. After three straight seasons of first-round exits, St. Louis has what it takes to advance deep into the postseason — if it can get past the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“Whatever happened in years before, they’re not the same team,” Crawford said of the Blues.
Blues captain David Backes added: “Some of it’s straight hard lessons of being out in the first round and having that dissatisfied feeling … We’ve got a different attitude now. ”
Hitchcock worried that his Blues would slump their shoulders when Crawford came up with sprawling saves to keep the Blackhawks up 2-1. The building erupted with cheers: Cor-ey! Cor-ey!
The second intermission came with Chicago leading 2-1. The Blackhawks had gone 70-0-4 when leading after two periods since the start of the 2014-’15 season, playoffs included.
When the third stanza began, the team with championship experience couldn’t grasp its lead, and the group notorious for early exits came through in the clutch. Patrik Berglund earned the fluke bounce to tie the game, then Jaden Schwartz scored on a power-play goal after Kane’s high-sticking incidental penalty. The Blues made the most of their puck luck.
Fittingly, the final seconds ticked off the clock when an opportune dish to Panarin rattled off his stick and out of the offensive zone. The horn sounded and arena fell to a hush.
“We were in a great spot,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said, looking to that third-period lead. “That was a tough loss.”
Looking to Tuesday’s Game 4 in Chicago, the Blackhawks can consider how they’re 43-14 in Games 4-7 under Quenneville. History has proved that Quenneville’s teams are at their best late in each series, when they get a grasp for their opponent and game plan.
Quenneville can adjust his lines as needed and use Monday to maneuver his plans to beat the Blues. With a Game 4 win, they can even the series headed back to St. Louis.
Just don’t count out the Blues like one would in the past. There’s a resolve to this team, one that showed in the Game 3 comeback. Be sure not to doubt the Blackhawks, too, because they have the talent, experience and intangibles to take this series in six games.
What we have is a topsy-turvy series that could be headed to seven games.
“It’s going to be a really long series,” Hitchcock said. “It’s going to be a tough battle for both teams. This feels very much emotionally like a Final, and it’s the first round.”
Added Quenneville: “Margin of error is minimal.”
Monday brings an important day of rest and realignment for both the Blackhawks and Blues, caught in a tussle to advance on. In the aftermath of Sunday, both teams realized the challenge that’s ahead.
The Blackhawks and Blues are evenly matched and bound for quite the fight. Chicago’s quest for a Stanley Cup repeat must withstand a tough test from St. Louis and its team that won’t give in.
“We’ve got to get pissed off,” Crawford said. “I think we are right now.”