- Toews energized, ready as Blackhawks begin quest for another Stanley Cup
- Blackhawks face tough challenge in first-round opener against the Blues
- Patrick Kane on third line with Bickell, Shaw; Quenneville opts for balance
- Blackhawks vs. Blues: First-round playoff schedule
Updated: April 18, 2014 12:17PM
ST. LOUIS — His face a bit bloodied, his shoulders a bit stooped, Jonathan Toews sat at his locker stall — he usually stands up, but hundred-minute hockey games take their toll — and tried to process and put in the past the Blackhawks’ 4-3 triple-overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues in Thursday night’s first-round opener.
“Let this one sink in, and maybe we can be ticked off about it for a few moments here,” Toews said. “But then tonight and tomorrow, it’s time to move on and get ready for the next one.”
The next one will be here soon — Saturday afternoon, less than 40 hours after Thursday’s marathon ended with Alexander Steen’s goal 26 seconds into the third overtime.
The good news? The Hawks found that switch they’ve been waiting to flip.
The bad news? So did the Blues.
Looking nothing like the team that largely coasted to the regular-season finish line, and an awful lot like the team that marched to its second Stanley Cup in four years last spring, the Hawks opened their championship defense with an impressive and emphatic first two periods in Game 1.
But looking nothing like the team that lost its last six games and was shut out in its final two, the Blues took the body early, controlled the puck late and sent the game to overtime — and then double overtime, and then triple overtime — with Jaden Schwartz’s goal with 1:45 left in regulation, eventually setting the stage for Steen’s heroics.
It was the eighth straight time the Hawks lost the first road game of a playoff series.
It also set the tone for what promises to be a riveting and rollicking series.
Whether it was Toews hitting Patrick Kane with an 80-foot stretch pass for a breakaway goal; or Niklas Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith blocking shots on the penalty kill and logging more than 40 minutes each; or Corey Crawford making several highlight-reel saves; or the Hawks spending nearly the entire second period in the Blues zone; the Hawks were crisp, sharp and energized.
But it still wasn’t enough.
Unlike last season, when the Hawks faced the overmatched Minnesota Wild in the first round and coasted to an uninspired five-game victory, this series — as expected — ratcheted up the intensity right away. The crowd was loud, the tension was thick, and the Blues came out doing exactly what everyone expected — hitting. On one early shift, David Backes took a run at Toews but missed, then tangled with Hjalmarsson in the Hawks crease, drilled Johnny Oduya along the boards at center ice, then got a piece of Toews in the far corner.
That’s how the Blues wanted to play. The last thing Ken Hitchcock wanted was to get into the kind of track meets that highlighted Wednesday’s opening slate of games.
“Usually the first game in the series is pretty hectic,” he said.
The Blues, who hadn’t scored a goal in more than 148 minutes and who hadn’t scored an even-strength goal in more than 222 minutes, got the start they desperately needed after losing their final six games of the season. Adam Cracknell muscled in a rebound at 4:40 of the first period to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead and send Scottrade Center — for once fully dominated by hometown fans — into a tizzy.
Johnny Oduya tied it at 11:14, and Brent Seabrook — who craftily drew an interference penalty on Barret Jackman — scored a power-play goal two minutes later for a 2-1 Hawks lead.
The Blues responded three minutes later, as Vladimir Tarasenko — making a surprisingly early return from a broken hand suffered on March 15 — snapped a shot past Corey Crawford for a 2-2 tie.
Kane — making his own return from an injury suffered in mid-March — capped the wild first period with a breakaway goal, peeling away from the play before the Hawks even had the puck, then taking a tremendous stretch pass from Toews en route to the net.
Kane played 28:31 in his return, tallying a team-high six shots on goal.
“I felt all right,” he said. “I think as you play a little bit more, hopefully you get a little more comfortable with playing again. I was a little nervous and anxious before the game to be back, and to play a game, but it felt good being out there and hopefully I just keep getting better.”
Both teams — and both goalies — settled down after the wild first. Miller stopped the next 35 shots he faced, and Crawford was brilliant, including two spectacular saves on the only two shots he faced in the second period.
“He was huge,” Toews said. “When they were getting their chances, they were great chances that probably should have gone in. He made some huge glove saves and huge, stretched-out pad saves. He made some big saves for us that kept us in the game and we wouldn’t have had a chance to win without him.”
But the Hawks started losing the possession game in a high-pace, high-tension third, content to sit on the lead rather than try to put the game away. As he often does, Joel Quenneville put Michal Rozsival on the power play point in the third instead of Patrick Sharp, a safer choice but a less offensive-minded one. Kane admitted the Hawks were playing to protect the lead, not extend it.
“Especially the last 5-10 minutes,” he said. “Definitely would have been nice to get another one to give us a little bit of insurance.”
They almost made it, but Schwartz managed to beat Crawford on a backhander with 1:45 left in the game to tie it at 3-3.
In the first overtime, the Hawks had the best chance, but Kris Versteeg’s shot was stopped at the goal line by a leg save not by Miller, but forward Maxim Lapierre. The chances kept piling up in the second overtime, including Alex Pietrangelo whiffing on a bouncing puck with an open net in front of him, and Miller stopping Patrick Sharp on a breakaway.
Then, suddenly, it was over, as Steen trailed his own shot and one-timed a drop pass from Steve Ott past Crawford just 26 seconds into the third overtime.
The game took nearly five hours, but — based on the physical play, the high-end scoring chances and the stellar goaltending — the series is just getting started.
“You’ve got to move ahead,” Quenneville said. “We knew it was going to be a tough series right from the start. This was an illustration — six periods of two teams leaving it out there.”