ST. LOUIS – Not surprisingly, these boys of winter had to skate a few extra laps before resolving the opening rite of spring here Wednesday night.
When David Backes banked in a sharp-angle drive 9:04 into overtime to provide the St. Louis Blues a 1-0 triumph over the Blackhawks in Game 1, all it did was confirm that this first round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, like fine wine, should be savored and not hurried.
“Sometimes it just comes down to a bounce, and we didn’t get it tonight,” noted Jonathan Toews, sounding like a composed captain who has logged 118 postseason starts, not all of which have finished in regulation. Two years ago, in fact, he and the Blackhawks lost a pair of sudden death games at the Scottrade Center, only to frolic with four straight conquests.
A couple observations can be attempted following this tough but not truculent evening. The Blues appear to be significantly deeper than they were in 2014. Also, they are better fortified in goal with Brian Elliott, who looks like a keeper. In 2014, Ryan Miller arrived late and at a hefty expense to lead the Blues to the promised land. Instead, he was just passing through.
Elliott’s counterpart, Corey Crawford, played well, although the Blues didn’t exact due diligence to determine whether he was rusty or not after incurring an injury in mid-March. They took only four shots on him in the first period, counted but a few serious threats against a defense thinned by Duncan Keith’s absence, and completed the grind with only 18 pucks on net.
Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, the last effort by Backes wasn’t all that good a look either. He flung the puck from a wickedly deep perch on the left and it caromed in off the skate of Trevor van Riemsdyk, who toiled 28-plus minutes and deserved better. So did all of his blue line brothers, but Keith is ready for Game 2 Friday night. Oh, is he ready.
The Blues, if not always assertive, were at least healthy for the first time all season, according to Head Coach Ken Hitchcock. He praised his team for bonding instead of unraveling when injuries mounted, but chemistry is easier to achieve when the masked man exudes confidence. The Blues do have two goalies ¬– Jake Allen is the other. However, Elliott does not act like he is in a sharing mood.
The Blackhawks mustered 35 shots, among them premium chances by Toews and Artemi Panarin, and five power plays, including one just seven seconds into the extra period. Head Coach Joel Quenneville said he liked what he saw from all but the last. Keith will help that situation, too.
For a spell, it appeared the visitors might also be without Andrew Ladd. He led a whirlwind existence to the puck drop, not scheduled for 8:42 p.m. in his behalf, although it didn’t hurt his cause. After joining the team charter to St. Louis Tuesday afternoon, he was awakened in the wee hours Wednesday. Wife Brandy might be about to deliver the couple’s third child, he was told.
So, Ladd flew back home at dawn. The blessed event did not occur, and he returned here late Wednesday afternoon, on very short sleep. Richard Panik, tentatively slotted as a replacement during the morning skate, was literally a late scratch. Ladd was expected to fly back to Chicago. He did not play like a man distracted by events more important than hockey.
The building was packed with 19,241, very little red in slght, and the vibe anticipatory, maybe a tad jumpy. In this town, not that anyone in Chicago cares, the leitmotif is frustration, a residue of serial psychic wounds. It is not just that the Blackhawks knocked the Blues out of the playoffs (again) two years ago, or that the precocious Cubs spilled the beloved Cardinals in the postseason last year.
On top of all that, the Rams bolted, leaving St. Louis without pro football. St. Louis used to be in the NBA, but no more. St. Louis used to be in the NFL, but no more. Civic pride hurts, to such a degree that Bernie Miklasz, popular sports columnist, had NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on this morning talk show.
“I thank you for what you did,” said Miklasz, referring to Bettman’s effort at steering next year’s Winter Classic here: Blackhawks vs. Blues at Busch Stadium. St. Louis needed that. Wednesday night’s indoor result? Also, quite welcome.