1. WINNER TAKE ALL
As the St. Louis Blues are relearning, the Chicago Blackhawks just won't go away. Despite opening the scoring early on Saturday in Game 6, last season's champions had surrendered three goals in the span of 4:42 in the first period, dampening the mood in the United Center and putting their chances of defending their title in dire jeopardy. Whatever was said in the Blackhawks room during the first intermission, the team emerged for the middle frame with new resolve and got to work, scoring twice to tie the game and spur a three-minute standing ovation during a TV timeout. Late in the period, Dale Weise's one-timer for his first goal as a Blackhawk gave his team the lead, which they would not concede again in the game, winning 6-3 on five unanswered goals to force a dramatic Game 7 on Monday at Scottrade Center. Overall, Chicago outshot the visitors 36-28, helped by a 19-6 margin in that decisive second period, arguably their best 20 minutes of the playoffs. They've won twice on the road so far this postseason, and will need a third victory to end the season for their biggest divisional rivals.
2. DEPTH CHARGE
Weise's game-winner put the exclamation point on a banner night for Chicago's depth players, a group that has not always been able to make a difference in the series. Andrew Ladd opened the scoring with his first playoff tally since Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final and added an assist. He was part of a new-look third line that debuted in Game 5, alongside Marcus Kruger (who picked up an assist on Ladd's goal) and Marian Hossa, who iced the game with an empty-netter and added a power-play helper of his own. The game-tying goal was a timely play by defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk for his first tally in the postseason, and all in all, the Blackhawks received contributions from players on all four lines, although they weren't all reflected on the scoresheet.
Take, for example, Richard Panik, who was named the First Star of the Game despite recording just one assist. The 25-year-old, who was acquired in January from Toronto, began the game on the fourth line but was moved up to the top trio in the second period. He was noticeable in all three zones, providing energetic forechecking and strong backchecking and drawing a crucial penalty late in the game that ended in an insurance goal by Andrew Shaw—the player Panik replaced on the first line. The Slovakian finished the game with 16:13 of ice time, third behind linemates Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
3. BREAKING VLAD
Throughout the series, Vladimir Tarasenko has proved that all he needs is the tiniest bit of space in order to make life difficult for opposing goaltenders. The Blues' leading scorer tallied his fourth of the postseason at the 11-minute mark of the first period to give his team a 3-1 lead, but the Blackhawks were able to hold him to three shots on goal (five attempts) in the game. One thing to watch in Game 7 is Tarasenko's ice time, as St. Louis Head Coach Ken Hitchcock has seemed hesitant to unleash his star sniper by double-shifting him in crucial situations. The 24-year-old has not crossed the 17-minute threshold in the four regulation tilts thus far, and with the Blackhawks taking just one minor penalty, he played just 8 seconds of power-play time in Game 6. If Chicago can remain disciplined on Monday and establish a lead as they did on Saturday, it will be interesting to see how much ice time Tarasenko is afforded in a win-or-go-home Game 7.
4. RUSSIAN WATERS
The Blackhawks' Russian duo of Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin has quietly been a consistent offensive threat throughout the series. Anisimov netted his third goal of the postseason on an early power play in the second period to halve St. Louis' lead; he previously had five goals in 32 postseason appearances. Two of his three goals have come on rebound opportunities, and his countryman has picked up primary assists on all three. Panarin, in his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, has been one of the Blackhawks' strongest players on the puck, and after picking up a pair of helpers on Saturday, the 24-year-old now shares the team lead with seven points (2G, 5A). Panarin's second assist of the game showcased his exceptional vision, as he jumped on a loose puck behind the Blues net and fed Weise for a sharp-angle shot. With Kane jumping up to the top line, the Blackhawks have been able to rely on their Russian duo to keep things going and provide a second wave of attack.
5. CAGE MATCH
The goaltending in this series was spectacular in the first five games, as Brian Elliott and Corey Crawford each did their part to frustrate the opposing team's top players. Game 6 was a bit of a departure, and the first contest that ended in more than a one-goal margin. St. Louis' early surge came on the back of three goals on five shots, but the Blackhawks put faith in Crawford's ability to bounce back, leaving him in when a goalie change wouldn't have been that controversial. From that point on, Chicago's netminder was airtight, stopping all 21 shots he faced, including all 11 in the third period with the Blues pressing. Elliott did as well as could be expected when faced with a 19-shot barrage in the second period, but the sharpness from earlier games just wasn't there on Saturday. While Elliott has never backstopped a Game 7, Crawford does have four such games under his belt, posting a 2-2 record (both losses coming in overtime) with a .919 save percentage.
THE FINAL WORD
St. Louis' regular-season performance helped them secure home ice for just this occasion: Game 7 against their most hated rivals. The Blues haven't won a Game 7 since Quenneville was behind the bench, but it's a hurdle they'll need to clear if they want to be taken seriously as Stanley Cup contenders, rather than a team that continues to burn out in the postseason. Chicago, on the other hand, has been here before, with a 2-2 record under Quenneville and three of the four tilts going to overtime. The Blackhawks played their best game of the series in Game 6, getting all four lines rolling, and they hope their seasoned core can give them an edge and come through once again in the biggest moment of the year. While a regulation win would be preferable for both teams' fan bases, the margin has been so small throughout this first-round battle royale that no one would be surprised if the deciding game required extra time yet again.