Five things Blues must do to force Game 7

Saturday, 04.26.2014 / 5:02 PM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

CHICAGO -- The similarities might haunt a more pessimistic St. Louis Blues fan. They might even force an optimistic fan to rethink his positivity.

Last year, matched up in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis took a 2-0 series lead with Alexander Steen scoring the winner in Game 1 and Barret Jackman playing the hero in Game 2.

The same thing happened this year in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference First Round against the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions.

The Blues went to Los Angeles last year with a chance to close the series with two wins at Staples Center but couldn't score in Game 3 and lost 1-0. They went to Chicago this year with a chance to the series with two wins at United Center, but they couldn't score in Game 3 and lost 2-0.

Game 4 in Los Angeles was tight, but the Blues lost 4-3. Game 4 in Chicago was tight, but the Blues lost 4-3 in overtime.

The Blues went home tied 2-2 with the Kings and lost Game 5 in overtime, 3-2. They went home tied 2-2 with the Blackhawks and lost Game 5 in overtime, 3-2.

The Blues were eliminated in Game 6 against the Kings. The Blues are hoping the similarities end there, with Game 6 against the Blackhawks on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).

"Everybody is probably writing, 'Here they go again. They're challenging the top teams, but can they get through the top teams?'" Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Saturday. "Everybody is going to write that stuff. But we have a chance to write the message that you guys have to print, so it's in our control. ... And I want to see us embrace this.

"Yeah, we're knocking on the door and we're knocking hard, but we've got to push through. Just can't keep pushing up against the wall. We've got a real opportunity to push through the wall here. I want to see our players take advantage of this."

Here are five ways the Blues can take advantage of the situation and force the series back to St. Louis for Game 7 on Tuesday:

1. Start on time

It sounds so obvious. What team doesn't want to get off to a strong start? It doesn't matter if it's the regular season or the playoffs, at home or on the road, a strong start can go a long way toward a positive result.

The problem for the Blues is they have been better in this series when they've been trailing. Four of the five games have gone to overtime, and the Blues have had to overcome regulation deficits in all four.

That's a sign the Blues haven't had good starts, and that's not a recipe for long-term success in a best-of-7 series. Hitchcock knows it. He made it a major talking point Saturday.

"It seems like we play with more composure when we get down a goal," Hitchcock said. "I want to see us play with composure and that compete level earlier in the game, rather than a third of the way through the game. That, for me, is a big challenge for us moving forward, to show that competitive composure earlier in the games so that we can maintain our game and eliminate some of the chances for them."

Hitchcock said the Blues are in trouble if they try to match the Blackhawks scoring chance for scoring chance.

"It's hard to dig yourself out of a hole every game," he said. "And we've been chasing every game for the last three or four games. That wears you down after a while. For us, you like our spirit, you love our heart, you love everything that goes on with it, but I want to see us playing better early, and then that gives us a real fighting chance to win a hockey game."

2. Put some finish on it

The Blues couldn't ask for better chances to win Game 5 before Jonathan Toews scored on his breakaway in overtime.

St. Louis had 2-on-1s, even a 3-on-1, wide-open shots from the circles and the high slot. They had everything but a finishing touch.

Against the Blackhawks, who usually have a man back to avoid giving up odd-man rushes, blowing chances like they did Friday is something the Blues just can't do. And it's a double failure when you know that the Blackhawks are one of the best finishing teams in the NHL.

"If you've got to fall through the net, that's what's got to happen this time of the year," Blues forward T.J. Oshie said.

3. Miller in the getaway car

Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford arguably stole Game 3 with a 34-save shutout, making Toews' goal early in the first period stand up until Marcus Kruger scored into an empty net. Crawford's performance that night turned the series in Chicago's favor and might be the difference in the end.

"Crawford, for me, he hit the home run in the third game," Hitchcock said.

St. Louis goaltender Ryan Miller has to knock one out of the park Sunday. He hasn't stolen a game in this series, and the Blues might not win another one if he doesn't.

Miller has a .911 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-against average. He has allowed three or more goals in four of the five games. He allowed one goal in Game 3, but that was Crawford's night.

"We're probably going to have to steal a game to bring this thing back, so he's going to have to be part of the steal," Hitchcock said. "He's going to have to be one of the robbers. He's going to have to be a big player for us. We know that, he knows that."

4. Do something, anything, on the power play

The Blues had two power-play chances within the first 10 minutes of Game 5. Not only did they fail to score, but they failed to generate any momentum.

It was two of several missed opportunities St. Louis had to win the game.

Not scoring on the power play is one thing, and it happens to even the best teams 75-80 percent of the time. But if a team can't swing the momentum in its favor for the next several shifts to follow the man advantage, then it's a total loss.

That's the only way to view the Blues power plays in Game 5.

The power play has been a problem for each team all series, but the Blues have had more opportunities. St. Louis' power play is 2-for-23 and averaging 1.47 shots per opportunity in the series.

Credit the Blackhawks for getting in the shooting lanes and blocking shots, particularly with one of the two high forwards (usually Michal Handzus), but the Blues need to have more of a plan to get their structure on the power play.

5. Check to make a play

The Blues don't have to be a big hitting team to be a big physical team. They're at their best when they check the puck back. They're vulnerable when they chase a hit.

"Chasing contact against Chicago works for a little while, but you learn to play through it," Hitchcock said. "I thought [Friday] some of their top players played through some of our contact, so we have to make sure we're checking better."

To be better at that Sunday, the Blues have to play with more control and composure than they had in Game 5. Hitchcock said the Blues will reduce the number of scoring chances against if they do that. That also might mean they'll have to reduce their number of hits.

St. Louis was credited with 47 hits in Game 5, but they didn't seem to affect Chicago.

"[Chicago] plays a game that makes you run around because they're going. They don't care. They fly," Hitchcock said. "So you're chasing and trying to get it slowed down. We're better just playing our game. That's the composure part. There's a difference between hitting and checking. I want to see us check more rather than chase contact. Sometimes when you're trying to get the game into your grasp, you chase contact a little bit. So for us, it's probably replacing emotion and probably adding the word intensity to it, which is a little bit of focused emotion."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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