ST. LOUIS - This could be the final game of the season for the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues head into their Game 5 Thursday at Scottrade Center with St. Louis up 3-1 in their Western Conference First Round series. Here are five keys to Game 5.
1. Close it out: The Blues have a chance to end the series Thursday. They want to end the series Thursday.
For a team with a recent history of disappointments in the playoffs, failing to get out of the first round for the past three seasons, it would be a huge boost to knock the defending Stanley Cup champions out in Game 5, not allowing confidence and experience to creep back into the series.
"The faster we can end this series, if it's [Thursday], good on us because we really don't want to be playing against the defending Stanley Cup champions too often," Kevin Shattenkirk said.
As Troy Brouwer said, "We don't want to let it go back to Chicago. This is a team that knows how to win."
2. Star power needed: It's a theme that has been repeated throughout this series: The Blackhawks stars need to be their stars. Patrick Kane has not scored. Neither has Jonathan Toews. In fact, his entire line has been kept off the scoreboard by the Blues.
This is the time for them to be who they are, with elimination hanging over their heads.
And, with that in mind, coach Joel Quenneville reunited the pair on the Blackhawks top line Thursday. Quenneville said he would go with a line of Richard Panik-Toews-Kane to start, with Teuvo Teravainen on the right side of Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov. That leaves a rather meager bottom six for Chicago. But they're not really the point. The point is Kane and Toews, a pairing the Blackhawks have turned to at times of trouble. Down 3-1 in the series to the Blues qualifies.
"At this point of the playoffs, sometimes things call for a change," Kane said. "We haven't played with each other much, so hopefully it's kind of that instant chemistry and we can get a win tonight. That's the most important thing, so hopefully it helps us."
3. Replacing Shaw: The Blackhawks will be without Andrew Shaw for Game 5 after he was suspended for one game for using a homophobic slur in Game 4. He has been a crucial player for the Blackhawks, with two goals and two assists for a team that has struggled to score in this series. That, in fact, is exactly one quarter of the eight goals the Blackhawks have scored in the first four games.
It appears Dale Weise, who was scratched Tuesday, will be replacing Shaw in the lineup. But it will be a team effort to replace Shaw's effectiveness.
"It's a big loss for them," Shattenkirk said. "I think he's been one of their best forwards all series. He's been effective physically. He's obviously a guy who can get under your skin a little bit. He's been going to the net, he's been getting a lot of scoring chances. I know personally he's a guy that I always have to watch out for, because he's dangerous. He can score that timely goal, he's shown that in the last few years. For them to have him out, it's a big energy guy that they're going to miss."
4. Tarasenko time: St. Louis has relied heavily on the STL line in the series, with Vladimir Tarasenko scoring three of the Blues' 10 goals and Jaden Schwartz scoring another two. Combined with Jori Lehtera, the line has five goals and six assists in the first four games of the series.
That can't continue, at least not if the Blackhawks want to advance.
So while the Blues would certainly like to keep riding their best line, Chicago needs to figure out how to shut it down. The question at this point is: Can it be shut down?
5. Play your game: There is a tendency for teams in elimination games to get away from what got them there, to change things up and err in doing so. The challenge for the Blues will be to not to do that. As close as these games have been, as much of a chance as Chicago had to also be up in this series, the Blues largely have been the better team, and were a millimeter away from potentially winning the one game they lost.
So, Thursday, the Blues just need to be the Blues.
Asked why the fourth game is so hard to win, Brouwer said, "It can be. Some desperation on both sides. The team who's trying to close them out doesn't want to make too many mistakes, and you can play a little bit tentative. For us, we've got to come in and play the way that's been working for us the last couple games."