CHICAGO – Slumped on a bench in the dim visitors' dressing room on Sunday, his massive white leg pads still unfastened, Ryan Miller sat motionless and stared ahead. The standout goaltender had been with the St. Louis Blues only since the NHL trade deadline in early March. He was new to this. But his vacant, disbelieving daze suggested that he'd been here before. All of the Blues couldn't fathom how another playoff series they had put in an early stranglehold had exploded from their grasp.
“Guess I'm free to go to my sister-in-law's wedding,” Miller said, somehow barely audible in a room that was already nearly devoid of all sound.
Once more, another two-games-to-none series lead, another plunge into four straight losses and a brisk exit into the offseason. Last year, the Los Angeles Kings delivered that gut punch to the Blues. This time it was the Chicago Blackhawks, who absorbed just about the best that St. Louis could muster before rocketing to a 5-1 win in Game 6, via a four-goal third period at the United Center that delivered a 4-2 series win for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Once again, the Hawks responded to another early playoff deficit by finding another gear in order to advance. The Blues, meanwhile, never got perceptibly better. They never overachieved. If they performed to the very limit of their capability, then that is actually a very inauspicious thing: It means that the team that was the best club in the Western Conference for a good portion of the regular season somehow hasn't been constructed to do what's necessary to win the Stanley Cup.
Of its last 16 postseason games, St. Louis has won just four, dating back to a second-round sweep by the Kings in 2012. To argue that they are excruciatingly close to where they need to be, the Blues can point to their four losses to the Blackhawks that included two overtime contests and one virtual one-goal defeat. (Game 3 was a 1-0 game until an empty-net score in the final seconds.) On the other hand, St. Louis is spinning its wheels in a Central Division teeming with teams like Chicago, Colorado and Minnesota that are humming along at a high level or just revving up. The United Center on Sunday featured two clubs from a witheringly tough division, and one has an identity while the other has nothing but the same old questions.
“Same scenario as last year,” captain David Backes said. “We all need to look in the mirror and assess how we did and what we didn't do. Because no offense to you guys, but these interviews are getting a little sickening to have in April and not in June.”
The Blackhawks' template was easy enough to decipher and perhaps nearly impossible to replicate. Once faced with that 2-0 deficit after a pair of overtime losses in St. Louis, the best players on the defending champions' roster began to play up to their status. Goaltender Corey Crawford won the series for his team, per Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, spearheading a penalty kill that allowed St. Louis just two power play scores in 52-plus minutes with the man advantage. All-world forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews scored overtime winners in Games 4 and 5, respectively. And at the crescendo, it was the unrelenting wherewithal of former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith that willed the Blackhawks one round deeper.
Keith tied a postseason career-high with four points: a goal and three assists. He was practically a one-man force field at the blueline of the offensive zone, time and again catching or poking pucks out of harm's way and redirecting them in for another cycle. One such sequence led to the Blackhawks' first goal, a Bryan Bickell redirect off a Brent Seabrook blast from the point. Another led to the rejuvenating, go-ahead power-play score buy Toews 44 seconds into the third period. “I just wanted to try to finish it today,” Keith said. “I didn't want to go back to St. Louis in a tough building to play. You try to embrace these situations.”
As a bonus, Keith capped the scoring by charging the net and whacking in a deflected puck that was six inches off the ice. Every key player for the Blackhawks had a moment, at some point, in the series comeback. Keith provided the final, most dynamic example. “I've been here six years with Duncs,” Quenneville said. “That might have been the best game I've ever seen him play.”
That's what any club needs to move toward a title. What member of the Blues did anything to elicit such praise over the last four games?
Emergent 22-year-old dynamo Vladimir Tarasenko had four goals in the series, but was shut out in the last two. St. Louis' top four scorers during the regular season – Alexander Steen, Backes, Jaden Schwartz and T.J. Oshie – combined for three goals in six games. And then there was Miller, who looked after Game 6 as if the weight of the series had descended upon his lean shoulders. He was acquired at the trade deadline from Buffalo with the intent of providing the final piece of a championship contender, but was the second-best goalie on the ice in this series. Miller smiled incredulously on Sunday when asked what moments might haunt him during the offseason, but that list surely begins with the pudding-soft goal he surrendered early in Game 3. None, though, might fester as much as the score that effectively sent St. Louis into a bleak vacation.
Not two minutes after Toews' goal early in the third period, Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp broke ahead on a feed from Kane. As Sharp charged toward Miller, he caught a stick to the chin from Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. An understandably mild shot attempt, as Sharp put it, “rolled off my stick.” Somehow, Miller was on his side, splayed out, incomprehensibly out of position and out of whack. The puck slid under his right arm and the Blackhawks had a 3-1 lead. The spirits leaving the bodies of every St. Louis skater might as well have been a scene lifted from Transcendence.
“I was in the right spot and he kind of chipped it,” Miller said. “Just too bad.”
It was a little more than that.
“The goal was a back-breaker,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “It was a back-breaker. The bench was still fine, our team had great spirit at the start (of the third period). We played as well as we ever played in this building. Then the third goal, the air went right out of the bench.”
And St. Louis was plunged into self-examination once more, even as Hitchcock said he didn't want to "get into long-term stuff." This summer, the Blues will have to decide whether to re-sign Miller. They will have to decide whether the current group that has lost eight straight postseason road games has the right mix to forge ahead. This team's front office as to make all of these decisions, again, in the context of an unforgiving division and conference. The Blues had claimed during the week that the past was irrelevant or that they had learned from it -- whatever psychological ploy suited their purpose. Then they repeated that past and now must repeat the same introspection.
Making everything a touch more painful: They'll look in that mirror as they look at their rivals moving on. The Blackhawks once again got better as this physical, impossibly tense series moved along. Time will reveal the toll that was exacted, but the next series against Minnesota or Colorado just won't be as daunting. The defending champions have a roster with multiple key players who went from a Stanley Cup run to a full season plus Olympics duties and then into another set of playoffs. Chicago nevertheless appears to be just getting started. “Everybody is engaged, everybody is excited,” Sharp said. “We've got guys that have played a lot of hockey, but we're not slowing down at all.”
As Sharp spoke, the wily Toews slid over from his locker stall and pinched the bottom of the towel covering Sharp's lower half, faking a tug. Then Chicago's captain left the room, smiling. The day's only revealing moments occurred earlier. One would-be contender found another gear and a killer instinct and moved on, the Blackhawks rolling along in search of another title. The other side found itself in an all-too-familiar, agonizing position. The Blues were in control at the start. By the end, again, they were left searching.