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Blackhawks Buzz: Keith's return could provide offensive spark in Game 2

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


1. BLUE FRIDAY

The beauty of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that there's no time to dwell, not with seven possible games in a series, each separated by one day to prepare, to regroup, to heal. So while Wednesday's 1-0 overtime loss to the Blues in the postseason opener might feel like a setback, the reality is that the Blackhawks have an immediate chance to take the positives from Game 1—and there were several—and build off them. Chicago held St. Louis to just 18 shots on goal and dominated long stretches of play, and a shorthanded defensive unit was able to answer a lot of the questions surrounding their ability to survive the Blues' physical forecheck. Niklas Hjalmarsson called Game 1 "one of our better road games in a long, long time," comparing the intensity of the on-ice battles to the tight-checking 2015 Stanley Cup Final, in which five of six contests ended in one-goal games.

2. BREAKING THROUGH

One area that Chicago's coaching staff has marked for improvement is offensive execution. Despite piling 35 shots on St. Louis starter Brian Elliott in Game 1, the Blues' defenders were able to prevent the Blackhawks from jumping on any second chances. The power play was frustrated through five fruitless opportunities, including a lengthy 5-on-3 spell in the first period.

"We had a number of chances, especially on the power play, but it comes down to second chances, second efforts that we need to find," Jonathan Toews said after the game. "We need to keep getting that traffic in front.... I think all four lines can generate a little bit more around the net and in those tough areas."

"You've got to bury quality chances," added Head Coach Joel Quenneville, referencing the handful of breakaway or partial breakaway opportunities that were stopped by Elliott, whose collection of big saves included seven on Toews, five on Artemi Panarin and five on Marian Hossa. If St. Louis' defense tightens up in Game 2, then fighting for more space down low and getting bodies in front to limit Elliott's ability to see shots will become a crucial part of the game plan.

3. KEITH RELIEF

If the Blackhawks didn't make the most of their offensive zone time on Wednesday, Quenneville certainly liked the effort by his defense, which kept things simple and restricted the Blues to the perimeter for the most part, while sacrificing the body in various ways. Niklas Hjalmarsson was momentarily hobbled by massive shot blocks twice, while Michal Rozsival survived a ferocious hit from Robbi Fabbri; both returned to the ice and finished the game. Overall, the defense accounted for 13 of the team's 22 blocked shots, many of them coming on the penalty kill, which successfully erased all four Blues power plays. Chicago is hoping the return of Duncan Keith—who served the last of a six-game suspension on Wednesday—will provide a spark, especially in a series as tight as this one.

"I'm excited to get back and play," Keith told reporters on Thursday. "It's tough sitting out and watching games.... I compete hard and that’s what I’m going to do tomorrow."

4. UNDER PRESSURE

Although Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was able to get his preferred line matchups out against the Blackhawks' top players, the shot attempts were skewed toward the visitors. Overall, Chicago compiled a 50-41 differential, led by the dynamic trio of Artem Anisimov, Patrick Kane and Panarin, who controlled around 75 percent of shots against St. Louis' shutdown pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester and the bruising line of David Backes, Alex Steen and Patrik Berglund. Toews, Hossa and Andrew Ladd were also dangerous, facing off against the trio of Paul Stastny, Troy Brouwer and Robby Fabbri. The only Blues line that posted positive possession numbers was the top grouping of Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, who had a strong night against the Blackhawks' checking line; however, with only two combined shots on net, Hitchcock will undoubtedly be looking for more from his top offensive trio in Game 2.

5. NET GAINS

Game 1 might have traveled a different path had both netminders not been on their game. Corey Crawford looked sharp in the biggest test he's faced in a month, and was only beat in the end by a bad bounce off a centering pass by Backes. He faced just three shots while shorthanded, helped by nine missed shots and six blocked shots, but was able to react well to a couple of tips and deflections out front. Quenneville remarked after the game that he looked "like he's always looked: sharp, alert, aware, quick." If Crawford was steady, Elliott was reason the Blues were able to skate away with the W, making 26 saves at even strength, seven on the PK and two while shorthanded to log his first career playoff shutout. With both netminders playing confidently ahead of Game 2, both Crawford and Elliott are hoping to be the difference-makers once more on Friday.

THE FINAL WORD

The caginess of Game 1 highlighted just how familiar these two teams are with each other and resulted in a highly entertaining matchup between starkly different styles. The Blues played their signature straight-line game, featuring plenty of hitting, and despite being outshot and outchanced, were able to hold on for the overtime victory on the back of a sterling goaltending display. The Blackhawks, however, didn't sound discouraged after putting in one of their best team performances over the last month, and getting Keith back into the lineup should be a huge boost. "It'll be ratcheting up every game going forward," Quenneville said of the intensity factor, anticipating more physicality, more scoring chances and (the Blackhawks hope) more goals.

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