Thursday April 14th, 2016

Get all of Allan Muir’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.

David Backes' cross-crease pass attempt bounced off the skate of Chicago defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and skittered through the legs of goalie Corey Crawford at 9:04 of overtime, giving the St. Louis Blues a 1–0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their Western Conference quarterfinal on Wednesday (boxscore | recap | highlights).

If any game on the opening night of the NHL playoffs lived up to its billing, it was this one.

Three Stars: Zatkoff, Elliott, Kucherov shine on first night

The Blues came at Chicago's depleted defense hard, establishing their intent to physically dominate the Hawks from the start. The defending champs soaked up the punishment and countered with a disciplined display of speed and skill. But even as they built an edge in possession, they couldn't beat St. Louis starter Brian Elliott, who made 35 saves on the night for his first career playoff shutout.

Here are three quick thoughts on the game:

The Blues won despite themselves

A win is a win at this time of year, and style points are the last thing any team worries about. Still, this was an entirely artless victory by the Blues, and one that did little to instill the belief that they can knock off the champs.

2016 NHL playoffs: Blues vs. Blackhawks series preview

​Ken Hitchcock's plan was entirely predictable: With Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith sitting out (suspension), Hitchcock directed his forwards to hammer the thin Blackhawks defense at every opportunity. It's an old school approach to playoff hockey, an effort to win a war of attrition. And maybe over seven games, the punishment that Backes and Robby Fabbri and Troy Brouwer doled out to Michal Rozsival and Viktor Svedberg and Erik Gustafsson will tilt the series in St. Louis's favor.

But it's also a game plan that sucked the creativity out of a team that is capable of brilliant offensive play. Outside of a few late bursts of flair from Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, the Blues settled for a north/south approach that set up the hitting game, but tended to limit their attack to the perimeter of the zone. St. Louis ended the night with 17 shots on goal, just four of which came in the third period and OT. It seemed like even less because so few of their attempts posed any real challenge to Crawford, a netminder, by the way, who is still working off the rust after missing some time due to a head injury at the end of the season.

There's nothing wrong with playing hard, physical hockey. But with Keith gone, and Crawford vulnerable, the Blues had a chance to showcase their skill and dare the Hawks to keep up. They might yet try that at some point in this series, but it'll be a tougher trick to turn when the reigning Conn Smythe winner is back in the lineup.

That said, St. Louis desperately needed Game 1, and got it done. Elliott began to put his past playoff struggles behind him with his first career postseason shutout. The penalty kill was brilliant, particularly when erasing a delay-of-game call on defenseman Colton Parayko just seven seconds into overtime. And the defense managed to keep a lid on the dangerous Patrick Kane-Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov unit (for the most part, anyway).  With one in the books, there's a bit less pressure heading into Game 2. Let's see what that does to their game.

Big Game Johnny raises his play

The Hawks couldn't quite put this one in the win column, but it wasn't for lack of effort from Jonathan Toews. Knowing that his team would need a superlative effort to counteract the absence of Keith, the captain all but willed Chicago to victory.

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule, results, highlights

Toews, who has taken some criticism of late for his line's lack of production, was a monster in the offensive zone, creating chances both off the rush and by crashing the net. He landed a game-high seven shots on Elliott, at least four of which were five-alarm specials.

He was equally effective in his own zone, helping to neutralize St. Louis’s attack with tight checking and an active stick. But it was his block of a Schwartz blast from the slot midway through the second that likely saved a goal and helped the Hawks push the contest to OT.

The SI Extra Newsletter Get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox

Hjalmarsson steps up on the blue line

With Keith out, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville needed the rest of his defense to step up. The kids were solid, particularly van Riemsdyk, who deserved a better fate than to have the winning goal go in off his stick. But the real stalwart was Niklas Hjalmarsson, who skated a season-high 28:11 and was instrumental in limiting the Blues to those outside chances.

His best moment came on a first-period penalty kill when his block of a Tarasenko shot left him unable to put his full weight on his left leg. Hjalmarsson spent the next half-minute laboring around the defensive zone, trying to maintain the box and close off the shooting lanes even as the Blues tried to take advantage of his immobility. It was a truly heroic effort—sad that it was wasted in a loss.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.