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MORRISSEY: Blues miss their injured captain, get blanked by Crawford

Chicago Blackhawks captaJonathan Toews (19) celebrates with forward Patrick Kane (88) after scoring opening goal first period Game 3 against

Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews (19) celebrates with forward Patrick Kane (88) after scoring the opening goal in the first period of Game 3 against the St. Louis Blues in the first-round NHL hockey playoff series at the United Center in Chicago on Monday, April 21, 2014. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 23, 2014 6:25AM

W e all can agree that hockey is a brutal game. Players skating at high speed into other players. Players using sticks like scythes on each other. Players punching each other in the face. What says “good, clean fun’’ more than that?

In the context of all of the above — I repeat, in the context of a sport in which nasty play is the norm — were the Blackhawks better off after Brent Seabrook knocked David Backes out of ­Saturday’s game, as well as Monday’s and possibly beyond?

The honest answer is “yes.’’

It doesn’t mean you have to feel good about it.

It doesn’t mean you condone the kind of head shot that ­Seabrook put on Backes.

It doesn’t mean that Seabrook and the Hawks were trying to take Backes out of the series.

It just means that when the NHL suspended Seabrook for three games after he knocked Backes senseless in Game 2, the Hawks got the better end of it. Backes is more valuable to his team than Seabrook is to his. Simple.

I’ll be surprised if Backes plays in Game 4 Wednesday night. I won’t be surprised if he’s out longer than that.

A cold way of looking at things? Arctic. But it’s a sober, clear-eyed analysis of how things work in the NHL. Unless the league wants to legislate aggression out of the game, basic math will always come to the fore, as it does in this case: Hawks minus Seabrook > Blues minus Backes.

The Blues looked a lot less aggressive in Game 3 than they did in the first two games. Fewer Hawks left the ice limping.

And the result was a 2-0 Hawks victory and a series that looks a little different today than it did two days ago. You can thank Corey Crawford (34 saves). The more hard-bitten Hawks fan (or the more honest one) will wonder whether Seabrook should get an assist.

Backes is the best player on St. Louis’ roster, a two-way star who has an impact on games the way Jonathan Toews does.

With Backes out, Patrik ­Berglund saw his first action of the series. Big difference in talent. How big a difference?

“What would Chicago be like without Toews?’’ Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said.

“For us, Backes is Toews. It’s a big hole, but I think we’re more equipped to handle this than we would have been without Bergie here.’’

The problem with the clearheaded, Hawks-Have-the-Advantage-Now angle was the human element involved. The Blues believed Seabrook’s shoulder-to-head hit was dirty and, worse, that one or more Hawks were taunting a dazed Backes afterward. Audio from the game seems to show Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith saying, “Wakey, wakey, Backes,’’ as the Blues star fought to stay upright on rubbery legs.

There is no way to measure how emotion affects a team, but there was little doubt that the Blues were fired up going into Game 3. Perhaps they played harder for a while without their captain, but at some point, it usually comes down to talent. I happen to think the Hawks had more of it than the Blues did before the series began, and even more after the Seabrook-for-Backes swap happened.

Hitchcock believes the series will come down to effort. We’ll see.

“[The Hawks] know that we’re not going away easy,’’ he said. “If we’re not good enough at the end, that’s fine, but we’re not going away in any game. This is the level we’re going to play at.

“We get Backes back in the next two or three games, we’re going to go even higher. And if that isn’t good enough, that’s not good enough.’’

The Hawks took a 1-0 lead in the first period on Toews’ wobbly goal, then went strangely silent despite being back at the United Center for the first time since the regular season ended. They ­continued to struggle on the power play.

Crawford, who coach Joel Quenneville had said needed to be better in Game 3, was exceptional. If the goalie is the problem with this team, then the Hawks don’t have any problems.

Clinging to that one-goal lead in the third period, they seemed to revert to the prevent defense that had cost them Game 1.

But center Marcus Kruger knocked in an empty-net goal with 20 seconds left to seal the victory. And just like that, a series got a whole lot more interesting.


Twitter: @MorrisseyCST

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