CHICAGO -- It might be just three games into a compressed regular-season schedule, but the Chicago Blackhawks look like they're already in midseason form.
After taking their first two games on the West Coast this past weekend, the Blackhawks continued their torrid start by downing the equally-hot St. Louis Blues 3-2 on Tuesday night at United Center in the first of five games between the Central Division rivals.
Chicago is off to a 3-0-0 start for the first time since the 1972-73 season and has done it by beating the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the defending Pacific Division champion Phoenix Coyotes -- who ousted them in the first round of last season's Stanley Cup Playoffs -- and now the defending Central champion Blues.
"We're not going to get too high on ourselves because of that," said captain Jonathan Toews, who assisted on Seabrook's power-play goal in the second period. "We've just got to remind ourselves every night that it's about us preparing ourselves to play and worrying about our own game and our own locker room. We've got to set that standard for how we're going to play every single night."
So far, it's been a pretty high standard. That's also been a key for the Blues since coach Ken Hitchcock took over last year, but they were playing the back end of the first of 10 back-to-backs this season and looked the part early.
Andy McDonald and T.J. Oshie scored for St. Louis (2-1-0), but until Oshie's goal – which he scored on a power play with 5:07 left in the third to make it a one-goal game – it looked like Chicago would comfortably finish off a business-like victory.
The late push made Crawford come up with some big saves to preserve the win, but Hitchcock said it still wasn't a good enough effort overall.
"We had an uneven game," Hitchcock said. "We played uneven. We were poor early, then very good for stretches, but too many poor decisions against a very good team. Our goalie held us in there in the first period early, but you can't make puck errors against this team. We just didn't manage it very well, especially on a back-to-back night."
It didn't help that the Hawks were opening their home schedule in a building where they've held a decided advantage over St. Louis of late. The Blues, who played without fourth-liners Scott Nichol and Ryan Reaves, are winless at the United Center dating back to Feb. 3, 2010, and have won just once in their last 11 visits.
This time, Chicago controlled most of the first and put a lot of heat on goalie Brian Elliott with some prime scoring chances off odd-man rushes in the first five minutes of the game. Elliott was up to the challenge until the Hawks finally got one past him for a 1-0 lead at 7:20 of the first – after all five Blues skaters got caught in the offensive zone and turned the puck over to create a 3-on-0 break for Chicago's second line of Kane, Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp.
Nick Leddy stole the puck and zipped a pass to Kane in the neutral zone. Kane then found Sharp at the right dot, took a return pass and deked Elliott to the ice from close range – capping it off by sliding a backhander into the net.
"It's a play that [Sharp] and I have talked about," said Kane, whose goal was his second in the season's first three games and fifth point. "[We said] if we ever had it, we'd try to give it to the guy [with] a chance where he could shoot and then he'd give it back. Usually the guy has an open net, but Elliott played it pretty well. I had to bring it back to my backhand, but it was a great feeling nonetheless."
Chicago kept the pressure on, but the Blues eventually tilted the ice in their favor toward the end of the first – forcing Crawford to come up with several impressive stops. His sprawling pad save against red-hot rookie Vladimir Tarasenko off a point-blank rebound chance really stood out.
Chicago upped its lead to 2-0 on Seabrook's power-play goal with 11:39 left in the second period. After Crawford swatted the puck away from David Backes to thwart a shorthanded St. Louis scoring chance, Toews rushed the puck up the ice and slid a short pass for a one-time blast by Duncan Keith from the point.
The puck hit Seabrook's right skate as he floated through the slot and changed direction just enough to fool Elliott – who watched the puck slide through his legs. Aside from Crawford starting it with his poke check, the play involved all Blackhawks players who helped win the 2010 Stanley Cup championship.
That's no coincidence, according to Toews.
"Our leadership group definitely understands some things that we can do better," he said. "We have a lot of talent in this room, but it doesn't mean anything if we have one or two guys going out there and getting away from our team game. The guys who've been here for years and since we won the Cup a few years ago, those are the guys that have to set that example that it doesn't matter who you are. You play the team game and stick to the game plan and we're going to win games and be better."
Stalberg put the Hawks up 3-0 just 2:09 into the final period by taking a pass from Bryan Bickell and firing a laser through the legs of Chris Stewart and past Elliott before McDonald finally got the Blues on the board a little more than two minutes later.
Oshie's goal late in the third – which came off a rebound of David Perron's shot to make it 3-2 -- forced Crawford to come up big a couple of times before the final horn sounded.
"That's a team that plays hard the entire game," Crawford said. "It was maybe a little nerve-wracking at the end, but it was a good win."
|Patrick Kane (2) ASST: Patrick Sharp (2), Nick Leddy (3)|
1 - 0 CHI
|PPG - Brent Seabrook (1) ASST: Duncan Keith (1), Jonathan Toews (2)|
2 - 0 CHI
|Viktor Stalberg (2) ASST: Bryan Bickell (2), Johnny Oduya (2)|
3 - 0 CHI
|Andy McDonald (2) ASST: Alexander Steen (3), Kevin Shattenkirk (5)|
3 - 1 CHI
|PPG - T.J. Oshie (2) ASST: David Perron (1), Alex Pietrangelo (3)|
3 - 2 CHI
|Brandon Bollig Fighting (maj) against Chris Stewart|
|Chris Stewart Fighting (maj) against Brandon Bollig|
|Andy McDonald Holding against Patrick Sharp|
|Marian Hossa Tripping against Andy McDonald|
|Vladimir Tarasenko Tripping against Dave Bolland|
|Ian Cole Interference against Michael Frolik|
|Niklas Hjalmarsson Holding against Jaden Schwartz|