The St. Louis Blues could not have asked for more of their short and profitable business trip to Chicago. Then there are the Blackhawks, who must achieve three straight victories or they will be officially dethroned as Stanley Cup champions.
In the angriest – and in some ways, the most stunning – chapter of a marquee First Round series, the Blues scored two third-period goals Tuesday night at the United Center to defeat the Blackhawks, 4-3, and assume a 3-1 lead in this memorable best-of-seven joust.
If you want to call that a stranglehold, you will have to debate the point with Ken Hitchcock.
"They have knowledge nobody else has," intoned the Blues' head coach, who oozes respect for the Blackhawks and their three titles in six years.
Fans here will dial back to the second of those in 2013, achieved only after the Blackhawks extricated themselves from a similar ditch. They were down 3-1 in games to the Detroit Red Wings in the conference semifinals, then roared to three consecutive triumphs. Two of those, however, were at the United Center. The Blackhawks do not own home ice advantage against the Blues, who have to be brimming with confidence after yet another evening that left either side and a standing room only crowd exasperated.
When Alexander Steen notched an empty net score in the 60th minute, it was over. Until it wasn't for two reasons. The Blues were barely offside, again. And there is no way these teams should be separated by a margin greater than one goal at game's end, until further notice. So it was still 4-3. Then there was a free timeout as Linesman Derek Amell had helmet repairs. Then, at period's end, a massive gathering of combatants that resulted in 11 game misconducts, among other misdeeds.
"This is so much fun, this series," Hitchcock went on. "This is why you coach. This is why you play. This is what hockey is all about."
The Blues, exhibiting the type of resolve Hitchcock attaches to the Blackhawks, broke a 2-2 tie early in the third period on a power play rebound by Jaden Schwartz and an unassisted goal from Steen, who picked off a pass by Trevor van Riemsdyk. With time dwindling, Duncan Keith scored his second off the stick of Vladimir Tarasenko, who launched two rockets of his own.
The closing minutes were predictably frantic, but goalie Brian Elliott prevailed. The Blues were outshot, 42-20, yet he did not have to be quite as brilliant as those numbers would indicate.
Tarasenko's second laser blast tied the match 2-2 on a power play late in a lively middle period. The Blackhawks had finally solved Elliott, just after their power play ended, when Marian Hossa fired and Shaw did his thing. The puck caromed in off his chest. Then on another power play, Keith jammed one in off a rebound from – of course – Shaw, down low. He has this affinity for blue paint.
In between the two Chicago goals, Corey Crawford embarked on some extracurricular self preservation. He halted Robby Fabbri, who appeared to be driven toward the net by Jonathan Toews. Crawford did not see red, however, only blue. With Fabbri off to the goalie's right, Crawford went after him, fists flailing. Other players on either side, anxious to partake, shoved and pushed while 22,212 – many of whom might be late for work Wednesday – roared approvingly. The Blues, meanwhile, wondered how the Blackhawks got a power play out of all this.
"I got hit in the head," rasped Crawford, by way of explaining his tantrum.
The Blues scored at 14:02 of the first period on what was only their third shot, but what a shot it was. Tarasenko took a pass from behind the goal line extended and, from just atop the right dot, blistered the puck past Crawford, who might not have heard it, let alone seen it.
Tarasenko also had the fourth shot, a rush on Crawford that was denied. The closest the Blackhawks came to scoring occurred when Artem Anisimov rapped twice at the puck in close, so close that the puck nestled over the line until Elliott reached back hopefully, smothering it just in time. Referee Chris Rooney whistled the play dead, then took a second look on video to confirm that there was no goal.
Head Coach Joel Quenneville did some blending of personnel, presumably to find balance on the forward lines. His message to his guys probably will be something like this: you can't win three games Thursday night in St. Louis. One will suffice.