Saturday, April 26, 2014

Toews OT winner puts Blues on brink of elimination

Chicago leads best-of-7 series 3-2 with third straight win in 
series; St. Louis' inability to finish haunting them again in postseason

ST. LOUIS -- If the Blues end up losing their first round playoff series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, they're going to kick themselves much for the same reasons they did in 2013.

Jonathan Toews' goal 7:36 into overtime gave the Blackhawks a 3-2 victory and coincidentally, a 3-2 series lead against the Blues in the best-of-7 series. 

Chicago has now won three straight in the series after the Blues led 2-0 in the series. 
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
David Backes returned to the Blues' lineup Friday night in Game 5 vs. the
Blackhawks, but Chicago win 3-2 in overtime on a Jonathan Toews goal.

Sound familiar? Well it should. They also led Los Angeles 2-0 before losing four in a row. And the same problem in that series has crept into their game against the Blackhawks: the inability to finish.

Not even the return of captain David Backes was enough to give the Blues the kind of jolt they needed.

Time after time, the Blues failed to capitalize on prime scoring chances. And in the end, it cost them a series lead and a chance to close out the defending Cup champs. Now they'll have to face elimination in one of the toughest buildings in the NHL Sunday for Game 6.

Toews was the benefactor of a fortuitous bounce when Duncan Keith's clearing puck caromed off teammate Andrew Shaw's shin pad and onto a streaking Toews, who beat Ryan Miller with a deke backhand inside the near post after Backes' shot kicked into the slot and with Roman Polak going off for a line change.

Jordan Leopold, Polak's left-handed defensive partner, veered to his left and Jay Bouwmeester, who was coming on for Polak, couldn't catch up with Toews.

"I just saw 'Backs' skating with the puck, I saw Toews jumping on the ice there, so I went to change, but I don't know what happened after," Polak said. "It was a lucky bounce or something. ... It was just a lucky bounce.

"I know I was changing. I saw Toews there. I know I was changing. After that, I went on the bench and I saw Toews get the pass and it ends up in the net."

Leopold said: "Roman was changing and they had a break there. We ended up getting a shot on net and it would up in the neutral zone. Slow change by them, ends up on their tape. Unfortunate bounce.

"He show-changed, but on a rush like that, we get the puck on the net and normally we get a rebound going or something. It's a lucky bounce and they took advantage of it."

Backes took the puck to the right circle and fired a shot at Chicago goalie Corey Crawford, but Keith's clearing attempt went to the right place at the right time.

"It's off a rebound. They just threw it away," said forward Alexander Steen, who was on the ice. "(Toews was) cheating up ice, got a breakaway."

"Yeah, they got a break," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Blackhawks. "Instead of us shooting it on net on the rebound, popped over our stick, we didn't protect the change. We were on the outside of the rink instead of inside, instead of going in their net, it went in our net."

But the Blues went home Friday night thinking of what might have been.

Scoring chance after scoring chance went astray, and it gave Chicago a chance to win the game, and a chance to close out the series at home.

"Yeah, again, I think same story we had plenty of chances to take bigger leads," Steen said. "We didn't. Cost us on the power play again in the first period. We had a couple we didn't convert on. 

"You want to win in the playoffs, you've got to score on your chances." 

And against the defending Stanley Cup champions, when those scoring chances are there, teams have to take advantage of them. The Blues have had their fair share of opportunities in the past three games. The bottom line: they've all been losses. 

The Blues were buzzing after getting the tying goal from T.J. Oshie in the second period and appeared poised to take the lead. But golden opportunities from Vladimir Sobotka -- after a terrific pass by Vladimir Tarasenko -- went awry. Sobotka fired high and wide as he was wide open from the right circle, and then Oshie pounced on a turnover in the slot and fired high, another open opportunity. 

The Blues had another 3-on-1 odd-man rush in the third period. Schwartz saucered a pass to Oshie, who initially had trouble corralling the puck, but Crawford got the paddle of his stick on the shot. 

That's how things went for the Blues offensively.   

"We were really going in the second, had those odd-man rushes in the third," Hitchcock said. "Made four or five mistakes and paid for it three times." 

"We had some opportunities, open nets, that we should have hit. At the end, they get a breakaway and they get the winner." 

Adam Cracknell's wrister from the left circle in overtime also went wide of Crawford. The Blues had their moments in this game, but in the end, Chicago's captain came up with the big goal. 

The Blackhawks and Blues played their fourth overtime game in the first five contests of their First Round series. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it marks the fifth time in Stanley Cup Playoffs history that at least four of the first five games of a series have required overtime. The others: 

2012 CQF: First 5 games between Blackhawks and Coyotes went to OT (PHX won series 4-2) 
2001 CQF: Four of first 5 games between Oilers and Stars went to OT (DAL won series 4-2) 
1951 SCF: All 5 games between Canadiens and Maple Leafs went to OT (TOR won series 4-1) 
1933 SF: Four of 5 total games between Bruins and Maple Leafs went to OT (TOR won series 3-2) 

Overall, the Blackhawks-Blues series marks the 13th time in Stanley Cup Playoffs history that a series has required at least four overtime games. 

And in a series where there is a fine line, the difference between finishing and missed opportunities is magnified. 

"It seems against a team that's got this type of finish, you make a big error, you pay for it," Hitchcock said. "That's what's happened in this series. We've played extreme hard, at times dominated, played to our potential, played with structure, but when we make an error like on the first goal, on the third goal we paid for it. That's what's happened. 

"We're paying for our mistakes and they got people who know how to finish and making us pay for it."  

Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo scored for the Blues in regulation. Marian Hossa and Ben Smith scored regulation goals for Chicago.

Roman Polak's bad pinch resulted in the first goal of the game, in which Hossa converted his first of the series.

Polak was beat on a pinch by Bryan Bickell, who took off the other way on a 2-on-1. Hossa's first shot was blocked by Miller, but Polak bumped into his goalie, leaving an open rebound in the slot and Hossa easily deposited the puck into the net at 16:11.

The Blues, who were looking for a fast start but were anything but fast, generated only six shots on goal and were lethargic on two power plays, in which they only got one shot. 

Too much hesitation, particularly by the point men, and indecision resulted in an 0-for-2 first period.

The Blues had a good spurt in the second period, and Oshie delivered the tying goal at 11:04 of the second, when Alexander Steen got him the puck in stride before taking a hit from Bickell, Oshie, dangled around Niklas Hjalmarsson and while falling to his knees, was able to list the puck over Crawford's paddle to finally electrify the standing room-only crowd of 19,796.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues goalie Ryan Miller (bottom) and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester (19)
watch Chicago's Jonathan  Toews (top) celebrate the overtime goal.

Chicago regained the lead when Smith collected a rebound of a Sheldon Brookbank shot that sat in the slot, and Smith's backhand appeared to go off the stick of Kevin Shattenkirk at 17:10 of the second.

The Blues equalized again when Pietrangelo converted an odd-man rush after Nick Leddy's shot missed wide badly and caromed off the boards for Schwartz in perfect stride. With Hjalmarsson defending, Schwartz feathered a pass to Pietrangelo in the slot and he beat Crawford short side 1:12 into the third period to tie the game 2-2.

Patrick Kane had a chance to give Chicago the lead with 3:55 left, but Miller came up with the save as Kane stepped into the shot from the high slot.

"It is a tough game to lose, but it's over," Polak said. "It's overtime. We have to bounce back."

"What's pouting going to do," Steen said. "You just get back on the horse. It's a game. You've got to win four. They have three, we have two. Off to Chicago we go. See you there."

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