“The time for message-sending has ended,” Ken Hitchcock declared before a group of reporters early Wednesday. The St. Louis Blues coach was referring to the nuclear-powered hits that had been delivered by his team and the Chicago Blackhawks early in the series. Those full-bore blasts were being phased out as the stakes continued to rise, and on that specific point, he was correct. But there was no doubt that the results of the teams' Game 4 showdown delivered an unambiguous message:
The defending Stanley Cup champions won't go away easily -- if at all.
The Blackhawks aren't making it easy on themselves, either. This time, they blew a two-goal lead before Patrick Kane's overtime score gave them the 4-3 win and evened their first round series at two games apiece. Still, despite their imperfections, their inexplicable early departure from their core philosophy of speed and precision, and their mind-numbing penalties on Wednesday, the Blackhawks basically had all four games of this series won. They've had to settle for two victories without yet compiling a completely dominating effort. That's a dangerous spot for the Blues to be in, even if they're heading back home to the Scottrade Center for Game 5 on Friday.
“They've got the momentum now,” Hitchcock said after watching his team's 2-0 series lead evaporate in Chicago. “We've got to find a way to regroup and take it back from them. That's a big challenge for us. We're going to have a little bit of a heart-to-heart and get back on our toes again.”
Here are more assorted thoughts from the third overtime tilt in what is fast becoming the best first-round series, by far, of this postseason:
• It is bad, bad news for the Blues that Patrick Kane looks like the Patrick Kane of old again. His reunion with Jonathan Toews on Chicago's top line for Game 3 and most of Game 4 seemed to jolt Kane to life after the prolific winger had missed the final 12 games of the regular season with a knee injury. Though he accounted for the only score by a Blackhawks forward in the first two games, Kane was really buzzing in Game 3 on Monday night at the United Center as his team faced its 2-0 series deficit. He fired several point-blank chances just off-target, the sort of near-misses that suggested a breakthrough was coming.
• Kane's breakthrough came in Game 4. He scored twice, added an assist, and probably could have ended overtime even earlier than he did. His absolutely nasty one-handed, no-look, through-a-defender's legs pass to Ben Smith resulted in a top-notch chance that Smith sent high. After that, Kane fired a blast that deflected off a Blues defenseman and the crossbar. Finally, he ripped the game-winner over goalie Ryan Miller's right shoulder from the face-off circle for his third career postseason OT game-winner. The Blues surely don't want to get into the kind of offensive games where the winner pots four goals, especially when St. Louis has a depleted forward corps. But Kane, at full strength, can almost single-handedly apply pressure and create chances that the Blues will be hard-pressed to match. “He's dangerous off the rush,” Hitchcock said. “Most dangerous player in the league.”
• At some point, the Blackhawks will find a way to be consistently smart. During the first two matches of the series, they played on the Blues' terms and not to their own puck-possession strengths, with predictable results. Then came Game 3 and the 'Hawks put together a responsible, detail-oriented effort that also ended with a predictable result: a win. And while Game 4 was no wild regression, just enough mistakes by Chicago piled up to give St. Louis a solid chance to win: Andrew Shaw shoving his forearm into Steve Ott's head away from the play, Bryan Bickell losing his balance and control of his stick and whacking Alex Pietrangelo across the face, Kane flipping a puck into the stands when attempting to clear it ... six minor penalties in the first two periods. And all came against a team that appeared entirely incapable of scoring at even strength. Actually, the Blues seemed incapable of scoring on the power play, too, coming in 1-for-16 with the man advantage. But if you keep playing a sloppy and unintelligent game and continue to give your opponent chances, that team will cash in eventually. And the Blues did. It was seven seconds after Kane's penalty that Vladimir Tarasenko shot through a T.J. Oshie screen to get St. Louis on the board late in the second period. His goal was a defibrillator shock to the Blues' flat-lined offense. One minute and five seconds later, it was a 2-2 game when Max Lapierre scored. Chicago must cure its case of brain-lock because that is the main source of its problems this series.
"We’ve just got to be smart," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said after the game. "Some careless penalties on our side. Let’s be more disciplined.”
• Before the game, Blues forward Brendan Morrow was ruled out for the rest of the series due to a lower body injury. Then, after playing it coy at the morning skate, Hitchcock again scratched captain David Backes, who missed his second straight game after absorbing a huge, controversial hit by Brent Seabrook in Game 2. His absence especially underscored the scoring challenges that St. Louis would face. The 22-year-old Tarasenko took care of that as best he could and nearly all by himself. He revived his team with his power play score late in the second period, and beat goalie Corey Crawford on a rush at the 12:26 mark of the third for the go-ahead score. It was a goal that Crawford never should have allowed -- to his glove side and without a screen -- but Tarasenko is on a roll. And that's enormous for the Blues.
• Evidently Tarasenko was given the ol' Skywalker hand replacement treatment. The St. Louis forward was out for weeks with an injury to his right mitt that he suffered in mid-March. Playing a single minute in this series was no sure thing, but for an injury-ravaged team that is desperate for anything resembling a goal-scorer, Tarasenko now has four tallies in four games vs. Chicago, including two on two shots in Game 4. (He had 21 goals in 64 regular-season games.)
• At times, Quenneville appears to set his line combinations by writing each player's name on a small piece of paper, tossing the pile of scraps into the wind, and seeing which settles where. His willingness and tendency to change on the fly paid off about seven minutes into the third period. It was then that Chicago shuffled its forwards and the recast line of Toews, Bickell and Marian Hossa eventually put together the best shift of a final frame that had been dominated by the Blues and scored the tying goal. The puck stayed in the St. Louis zone for well over half a minute, and play culminated with Bickell redirecting a Michal Roszival blast from the point for the 3-3 tie that set the stage of Kane's OT heroics.
• This loss will test how far back the Blues' memories go. Last year, St. Louis jumped to a 2-0 lead on Los Angeles. The Kings then won four games in a row. Desperation ought to set in, because desperation is what can help carry the Blues through Game 5. Hitchcock has repeatedly invoked the dynamic that he felt cost his team one postseason ago: That the Blues were in a fairly decent frame of mind entering Game 5 vs. the Kings, played as well as they could play that night ... and still lost anyway. That defeat was crushing, and a similar setback can't happen again. Going home will help, as might reinforcement in the form of Backes. Regardless, all-out desperation mode might not be a bad thing for the Blues to be in now.
The Blackhawks and Blues will meet in Game 5 at 8 p.m. ET on Friday.