Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Crawford, Blackhawks back in series with 2-0 win

Blues lead series 2-1, play what coach calls 
best game of series, blanked by goalie's 34 stops

CHICAGO -- The Blues, according to coach Ken Hitchcock, played their best game of their Western Conference First Round series against the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday night.

The Blues worked for better scoring opportunities, they possessed the puck more, turned it over less, forced more turnovers, fired 34 shots at Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (they outshot Chicago 34-25) but failed to do what mattered most: score.

And get the one timely save needed from Ryan Miller.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jaden Schwartz (9) watches as Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (right)
gloves the puck during a 2-0 victory against the Blues Monday night.

The Blues got neither in a 2-0 loss to the Blackhawks on Monday night at United Center to get the defending Stanley Cup champions right back in the best-of-7 series, which the Blues lead 2-1.

A Jonathan Toews goal, a very soft goal allowed by Miller through his pads from longer range, plus a Marcus Kruger empty-netter with 19.2 seconds remaining sealed the Blues' fate on a night in which they threw the kitchen sink at Crawford, who by his own admission said he needed to be better after allowing eight goals in Games 1 and 2 in St. Louis.

"Best game by far. Played a great game," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who talked at the morning skate that the Blues had to be better than they were in Games 1 and 2. "Would have been nice to see ... a little bit of the momentum got taken away when we had to do some PK, but man we poured a lot into today. We really played well, we did a lot of things that you want. That's one of the best road games I've seen us play. 

"They're a good team. We knew this was going to be a long series, but we really played hard, we really played well. We did a lot of the things we needed to do to win the hockey game, but you've got to give their goaler credit. He was good, especially late."

And the Blues played their best team game without their captain, David Backes, who missed the game with an upper-body injury after taking that vicious head shot from Blackhawks defenseman  Brent Seabrook, who missed the game serving the first of his three-game suspension.

But what the Blues always look to avoid when coming into this building is falling to the Blackhawks' early-game pressure. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk spoke of that very same subject in the morning, saying that the Blues didn't want to win the game in the first five minutes but didn't want to lose it either.

Well, Toews' goal, a soft wrister from 24 feet that somehow snuck through Miller's pads for a 1-0 lead 4:10 into the game, held up as the game-winner until Kruger sealed it.

Despite the solid team game, the Blues found it hard to take solace from a loss even though they liked the way they played.

"We didn't win the game," forward Alexander Steen said. "The focus is not to come in and have a decent hockey game. It's to win the game. We're obviously not happy we lost the game. We'll regroup, bring the positives from this one. 

"I thought we played well. Solid game, but we had our chances and our power play has to put the puck in the net."

The Blues were 0-for-4 on the power play but also thwarted four Chicago power plays in the game. 

"I really liked our power play today. I really liked it," Hitchcock said. "We made a lot of adjustments. For having like 10 minutes of practice, I thought our guys really did a good job on the power play."

The Blues had to do everything they could battling from behind because of a goal Toews scored that Miller wanted back. There was some initial thought that the puck may have deflected off the stick of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk but that wasn't the case.

"No. Just not a good goal," said Miller, who made 23 saves. "We'll leave it at that."

"It was a weird puck," Shattenkirk said. "I didn't get to see it obviously because I was facing (Toews). But he says it just takes a weird bounce off the ice and gets by him. I mean, he made some really big saves the whole game. Ultimately it's a 1-0 game. If we get a couple of chances here and there and put it in the back of the net, I think we're happy with the turnout." 

It only made the Blues a better team moving forward, according to Hitchcock, who said it didn't deflate the team.

"Not at all," he said. "We knew we were going to play well today. We're really starting to gain out confidence back again and we're going to need every piece of it to beat this team. But he's bailed us out so many times here especially late in hockey games. It wasn't a big deal. We knew we could weather any storm they were going to throw at us and keep going. I thought after that, we really started to play."

The Blues had their chances in the first period, Vladimir Sobotka in the slot and Jaden Schwartz on the doorstep of Crawford, but neither player hit the net.

After killing off four Chicago power plays in the second, the Blues kept pouring it on throughout the third, but Crawford was up to each challenge. Chicago's ability to block 24 shots also aided the cause.

"He made some saves ... we saw three from our bench he made, didn't even see; just hit him," Hitchcock said of Crawford. "We've got to stay the course. If we continue to play at this pace, at this level, we're hoping that that's good enough to win the next game."

The Blues had the same situation a season ago: a 2-0 series lead on Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings, game-winners from Steen and Barret Jackman (just like this series), they outplayed their opponent, in a road environment but were done in by the goalie.

"They're new seasons. I said this (Monday) morning ... when you're knocking off just a team in the league, different animal," Hitchcock said. "You're knocking off the defending champion. They're not the defending champion because they have skill, it's because they've got resolve. You're trying to beat their resolve. You're not trying to beat their skill. Everybody's got skill and it is one helluva challenge. Sometimes you do it, and sometimes you don't,  but I can tell you one thing, every time we play like we've played, we get better as a team and better as an organization and we get closer and closer. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) and the Blues couldn't solve Niklas Hjalmarsson
and the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 on Monday night.

"They know that we're not going away easy. If we're not good enough at the end of the day, 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 even go higher, and if that isn't good enough, that's not good enough, but it has nothing to do with blowing games like some track stars write about. There's a certain resolve that is required to win a championship, and that team over there's got it and we're trying to take it back from them."

"We're not disappointed in our play," Schwartz said. "We've been playing a good team game, working hard and really creating a lot. It's just the other games, they were going in. Tonight, we didn't get the right bounce. We'll make a few adjustments, but I think we're happy with our effort." 

The Blues limited Chicago's firepower most of the game, but as Steen said, "I think we can play even better. I think there's things in our game that we can definitely adjust and tweak. 

"Our PK was good tonight and our power play could have won us a game tonight and didn't."

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