If you want to be the champs, you've got to beat the champs. And as the St. Louis Blues are learning, that's easier said than done.
The Blues had the Chicago Blackhawks on the mat after Game 4, but the Hawks rebounded with consecutive wins to force a decisive Game 7 on Monday night in St. Louis (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
There's plenty on the line for both sides. Defending champion Chicago has hopes of winning a fourth Stanley Cup in seven years. The Blues are looking to end a three-year streak of first-round flops.
Here's what to watch for:
Vladimir Tarasenko's ice time: He's arguably been the most impactful player in the series, landing 24 shots on net, scoring four goals and six points and putting Chicago's defense on its heels every time he touches the puck. So why is Tarasenko getting less ice time than banger Troy Brouwer? Blues coach Ken Hitchcock tried to defuse his controversial handling of his star sniper on Sunday, saying it was the number of shifts, and not the TOI, that is telling for The Tank.
"Knowledgeable hockey people don’t look at time, they look at shifts, and shifts matter,” Hitchcock explained. “He plays a short-ice game with short shifts and that’s impacts his energy. He’s a big body that plays a lot, he gets leaned on, he leans on a lot of people. It’s very wearing.
“The game he plays is a physical game: it’s at the puck, it’s around the puck, it’s one on one and it’s very demanding. He’s not going to be a 48-, 49-second hockey player, and be effective. He’s a guy that has to play in short bursts and that’s what he does. He plays great in short bursts so his energy stays high.”
It's a fair argument, even if Tarasenko doesn't seem to agree—he was seen gesturing towards his coach after getting just eight seconds of ice on his team's lone power play opportunity in Game 6. But can Hitchcock afford to keep his best weapon holstered in the most important game of the season? Not a chance. Tarasenko is averaging 17:27 per game to this point, including 15:29 at even strength (well under Brouwer's 16:53). Look for him to approach 20 minutes in regulation tonight.
Brian Elliott's resilience: Switch goalies for Game 7? No way, according to Hitchcock. Can't argue that call from a coaching perspective—it would be wildly unfair to drop a cold Jake Allen into this fire—but Elliott has to reverse an unsettling trend to justify Hitchcock's faith. The Hawks scored two goals against him in Games 2 and 3, three goals in Game 4, four in Game 5 and then lit him up for five in Game 6. It's not that he's gotten progressively worse, but it's fair to say that Chicago's offense has found its groove and is finding ways to generate quality chances against St. Louis's defense. That puts the pressure on Elliott to shut the door long enough for his team to respond. He doesn't have to be perfect, but if he allows more than two goals the odds swing in Chicago's favor.
Who controls the second period: The Hawks haven't been sharp coming out of the gate in this series, scoring just two first-period goals through the first six games. They'll be looking for a quicker start in this one, but they'll be O.K. if that doesn't work out that way. Chicago has owned the middle frame in this series, outscoring the Blues 10-3. It's where they found their feet in Game 6 on Saturday, as they outshot the Blues 19-9 and scored three unanswered goals to overcome an early 3–1 deficit. It's a reflection of their ability to weather the storm ...and maybe of St. Louis's struggles to put a dangerous opponent down when it has the chance.
Andrew Shaw's net presence: Coming off the suspension that sidelined him in Game 5, Shaw was the picture of pugnacity in Game 6. He reintroduced himself to Elliott, spending much of his 14:26 getting in the goaltender's grill, and picked up his third goal in four games. In a contest where goals could be scarce, his willingness to pay the price down low and his outstanding hand-eye coordination could make the difference.
Hitchcock's coaching: Fair or not, his job's on the line tonight. Another first-round exit, especially after a series that featured a 3-1 Blues lead, is likely to mark the end of his tenure in St. Louis. How he handles his team in this must-win game could tell the tale. Hitch has always been a coach who leans heavily on his veterans, but some of the most effective Blues in this series have been the youngsters. Robby Fabbri has impressed with his speed, creativity and net drive. Colton Parayko has been a tower of strength on the blueline and an effective puck mover. Both deserve longer look if they show live legs early. And then there's Tarasenko. How Hitchcock utilizes his most dangerous weapon will be closely scrutinized.