ST. LOUIS—Local fears that Chicago fans would stage a hostile takeover of the Scottrade Center proved false Thursday night, as did apprehension in this precinct that the slumping, ailing and puzzling St. Louis Blues would be cannon fodder for the Blackhawks.
For sure, several hundred men, women and children wearing red sweaters invaded this city to adore the defending Stanley Cup champions. However, the standing-room-only throng of 19,423 was decidedly supportive of the home team that unaccountably lost its way for six straight games during the last couple weeks of an otherwise fine regular season.
Having not met in a postseason since 2002, these rival franchises had some catching up to do. They didn’t quite jam 12 years into one evening, but they managed to rekindle a certain spirit before the Blues captured Game 1 by a 4-3 score on Alexander Steen’s goal 26 seconds into the third overtime period. There were 94 shots combined and 109 faceoffs, and with Game 2 on Saturday afternoon, neither side has much time to dwell on the good, bad or ugly.
“I don’t think anybody is really worried in our locker room,” said Corey Crawford, aware that the Blackhawks won the 2013 Cup despite dropping the road opener in all four series. They also deliver bang for hard-earned discretionary dollars by offering free extra hockey. In their last playoff series, the Blackhawks started the Final against the Boston Bruins with a triple-overtime conquest that fell just seconds short of the longest game in franchise history.
Still, that aforementioned Locker Room 40 where visitors shower was a quiet as a library after Thursday night's loss. After a brutal defeat, the Blackhawks confirmed what they probably suspected all along. This opening playoff series will be more stressful than last spring’s against the Minnesota Wild. Also, if Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane needed some serious reps to regain their legs after injury problems, they achieved a crash conditioning course during a marathon in which the superstars combined for about an hour’s worth of heavy shifting.
“They were both really good,” praised Head Coach Joel Quenneville.
When Toews sprung Kane for a solo sashay to afford the Blackhawks a 3-2 lead late in the first period, it felt highly unlikely that they would be done puncturing goalie Ryan Miller. In fact, when Kane lofted a fairly innocuous shot that Miller saved early in the second, he heard a Bronx cheer from an audience that is a long way from the Bronx, in distance and attitude.
How normally forgiving Blues boosters might have acted had he yielded another score, we’ll never know. Miller settled down, while counterpart Crawford blunted more quality shots off clean looks than the Blackhawks would care to yield. The Blues generate offense quite well from their points, and ensuing chaos forced Crawford into stone-cold thefts on Steve Ott, Adam Cracknell and Vladimir Tarasenko.
The latter two tallied during an energetic first period while Johnny Oduya, Brent Seabrook on a power play and Kane countered for the Blackhawks. Moving right along, the guests appeared content to protect their slim lead, purloin home ice advantage and thoroughly demoralize a possibly fragile foe grasping to recapture confidence.
The Blackhawks accomplished none of the above, because Jaden Schwartz rescued the Blues from their seventh straight setback at 18:15 of the third period. At 3-3, not-so-sudden death produced a Miller stop on Patrick Sharp’s breakaway, a goalmouth sprawling block on Kris Versteeg by Maxim Lapierre, a tag-team jolt by Roman Polak and Ryan Reaves that momentarily rattled Toews, who also incurred a cut beside his right eye, and a battery of hand signals by Head Coach Joel Quenneville. He sought a delay of game infraction, didn’t get it and expressed himself with a variety of upper- and lower-body hand gestures.
Could be a long series. Coach Q wisely wants to save his voice.