ST. LOUIS -- Chicago Blackhawks center Marcus Kruger might have had time in the neutral zone to turn and go up the left-wing wall had St. Louis Blues forward Jaden Schwartz not been closing so quickly. He was, and in a flash Schwartz stripped puck from Kruger and took it into the attacking zone, leading to the game-tying goal Thursday in the first period of their Stanley Cup Playoffs opener.
Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson could have had some space to collect the puck and make a move out of the corner in Chicago's defensive zone had Schwartz not been pinching hard up the wall. Again, he was, and that quick decision created the turnover that led to Schwartz's game-tying goal late with 1:45 left in the third period.
"Fall asleep, he's going to catch you every time," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Schwartz. "He did it five or six times again [Thursday night]."
Schwartz, listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, has been catching opponents napping and turning his sneaky defense into offense all season. He did it enough times in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round series to be one of the Blues' biggest difference makers in a 4-3 triple-overtime win at Scottrade Center that gave St. Louis a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.
Game 2 is Saturday at Scottrade Center (3 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS).
"I know there are more skilled players than I am, so I have to find a way to outcompete them," Schwartz said.
There's a player on the Minnesota Wild who for years has played with the same attitude, and even used to wear No. 9, just as Schwartz does for the Blues. Hitchcock said he sees similarities between Schwartz and 5-foot-11, 197-pound Wild left wing Zach Parise.
"He's a similar to player to where Zach is for me, where they're not big players but they have such heavy stick and determination at the puck that you're never safe when you're trying to exit your zone," Hitchcock said. "He strips people. He knocks people off pucks. He surprises people by his tenacity on the puck and his strength down low. He plays a game that is necessary to win in our League. In other words, if you're on offense and you expect to stay on offense, it's not going to happen because of the way the games are coached now with the swarm and the numbers. So you're going to have to check the puck back in the offensive zone, and he's willing to do it. That's how he gets so many offensive zone chances."
Schwartz clams up a bit when he's informed of the comparison to Parise. His reaction makes sense considering Parise is eight years his senior, has played in 485 more regular season games and has 432 more points, including 207 more goals. But Schwartz knows what Hitchcock is talking about. He gets the comparison because he models some of what he does after Parise.
"When you grow up there are certain guys you watch a little more and certain guys you're a fan of, and I certainly like the way he competes," said Schwartz, who had 25 goals, 56 points and a team-high plus-28 rating in 80 games this season. "I know he's a smaller guy, but he really gets into the dirty areas to win battles and score goals. He's a guy I definitely watched. I wouldn't say I compare myself or try to be a mirror image, but he's definitely a guy that I've looked up to and learned a few things from."
Like Parise and Schwartz, what Morrow gives up in height (listed at 6-foot) he makes up for with a strong lower body and a tenacity on pucks along the wall and in the corners that leads to strips and offensive chances. He's 35 now and in a smaller role with the Blues, but Morrow is a two-time 30-goal scorer and scored as many as 20 in five other seasons.
Morrow, though, said there is one glaring difference between him and Schwartz.
"He's way too fast for me," Morrow said. "Maybe [comparable to] some of the things that I have done, but [I was] never that fast. He's me in fast forward."
Schwartz had to learn as a rookie last season that he could play fast and aggressive, that he could take a chance to make a play, especially with a hard pinch up the wall or in the corner as he did Thursday to create turnovers and eventually goals.
He said he was "a little bit timid to make an offensive play" when he got to St. Louis last season. He played 45 games and had seven goals and 13 points.
"I think he paid too much respect to the players in the League for the first part of his season last year," Hitchcock said.
It happens like that a lot for young players. Parise played 81 games as a rookie in 2005-06 and had 14 goals and 32 points. He went through the same mindset adjustment as Schwartz in his first offseason and scored 31 goals and 62 points in his second season.
"I think it's typical with any scenario, when you get more experience you get more comfortable and you get that confidence where you can make plays," Schwartz said. "I might have been rushing it before."
Hitchcock said Schwartz finally started to play his attacking game in St. Louis' playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings. He saw then what he's capable of, and responded with 56 points this season.
"You look at the height and you don't understand the heaviness down at the bottom, and I think it's the same thing with Parise," Hitchcock said. "You think you have more time. You look at his size, you think you've got him on his back, and the next thing you know he strips you of the puck. And when he's on top of his game, he can check the puck back as well as anybody in the League."
Kruger and Hjalmarsson are the latest to be able to vouch for that.