ST. LOUIS—Inseparable if not intimate, the Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues shall renew spring snarls when they commence the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs here Thursday night.
This will mark the 11th postseason series between these spirited rivals, but first since 2002, and it occurs earlier than expected. The Blackhawks seemed destined to open defense of their Cup championship against the Colorado Avalanche, who surged to seize the Central Division title while the Blues absorbed six straight losses.
When they culminated a deal with Buffalo for Ryan Miller, a world-class goalie, and the Sabres’ captain, Steve Ott, the Blues had sights on winning the division, the Western Conference and perhaps their first Cup. But they have incurred several injuries, which doesn’t mean they won’t be dangerous and in ill-humor.
Expect nothing less, for momentum can be a disguise. In 1980, burdened by a (still) record 16 consecutive playoff losses, the Blackhawks swept St. Louis in a best-of-five series. In 1989, although 14 games under .500, the Blackhawks tiptoed into the tournament on Troy Murray’s overtime goal on the last night of the regular season.
They then upset Detroit and St. Louis before bowing to the Calgary Flames, who won the Cup. Jeremy Roenick, lightly raced at age 19, starred in a typically truculent set against the Blues. During a scrum, Glen Featherstone cross-checked Roenick, dislodging several of the youngster’s teeth. He showed them to referee Kerry Fraser, who tagged Featherstone with a major penalty. The Blackhawks scored two goals in eight seconds, Roenick tallied later, and the shocked Blues were eliminated in five games.
The Blackhawks have confronted only ancient adversaries Montreal and Detroit more often than the Blues in the playoffs, not that the calendar matters. When it’s Chicago vs. St. Louis on ice, the games are often angry. Witness the contentious 1991 “St. Patrick’s Day Massacre” at the Stadium, where 278 penalty minutes and 17 misconducts were assessed. Dave Manson vs. Scott Stevens was a featured bout, but there was quite the undercard.
Familiarity breeds enmity, and for all the permutations in National Hockey League alignments, the Blackhawks and Blues have grown apart while grouped together over decades. Since 1970, when the Blackhawks left a division comprised of Original Six franchises to join six expansion teams, the Blackhawks and Blues have been in the same division. Appellations changed—West, Smythe, Norris, Central—but not the attitude.
During the 1950s, hardly a festive time for hockey in Chicago, the Blackhawks played a few “home” games in St. Louis and there was talk of them even relocating there. Later, the Blackhawks revived, won a Cup in 1961, and placed a farm team in St. Louis. Phil Esposito, Dennis Hull and Pat Stapleton were among future stars on the Braves.
In 1967, the Blues debuted as the NHL grew to 12 franchises. The Blackhawks did not protect Glenn Hall, assuming the iconic goalie would retire. But the Blues made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and “he put hockey in St. Louis on the map,” according to Scotty Bowman, who also did his part. Bowman, the Blackhawks’ senior advisor to hockey operations, began his Hall of Fame coaching career in St. Louis.
The Blues, with wobbly finances, were sold to a group that planned to move them to Saskatoon, would you believe. But they are now solid, and for much of this season, were at or near the top in a stacked Western Conference. The Blackhawks amassed 107 points—tied for the most in franchise history—yet finished third in the division and fifth in the conference.
“What was the last team with 107 points that had to open the playoffs on the road?” wondered Head Coach Joel Quenneville, who remains the winningest coach in Blues annals.
Granted, with points more available in games that extend beyond 60 minutes, NHL standings have a different look than yesteryear. Still, the Blackhawks played the equivalent of one-and-a-half regular seasons since the 2012-13 lockout was resolved and lost only 28 times in regulation. They dropped their first three games to St. Louis this year, two via shootouts, and won the last two. But, unable to fashion an overtime victory until their final home date, the Blackhawks missed out on precious points.
“This season is amazing,” offered Wayne Gretzky. “I played on some of the greatest teams of all time in Edmonton, and still we managed to lose 20 or so games every season. But the league then didn’t have the parity you see now.”
Indeed, six of eight teams qualifying for the playoffs from the Western Conference accumulated 100 or more points. As the Blackhawks embark on their sixth straight postseason, one thing is for sure in the wild West: within two weeks, four good teams will be gone, beards barely visible.