David Backes hopped on to the Scottrade Center ice and a torrential downpour of cheers from St. Louis Blues fans followed his every stride. The captain hadn't been seen after he was flattened by Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook three games earlier. Now here he was, back out of practically nowhere, with the series suddenly anyone's to win.
And there he was in overtime on Friday, bearing down on Chicago goalie Corey Crawford with a chance to win on his stick. But his shot was kicked out, and the rebound was flung up the ice. Then there was the other captain, Jonathan Toews, streaking down to the other end and freezing goalie Ryan Miller with his forehand before poking in a backhand score that produced Chicago's 3-2 win in Game 5, the fourth overtime contest of this riveting series. It was Chicago's first win in St. Louis all season, and it was nightmare fuel.
Miller remained still as the Blackhawks celebrated, on one knee and stunned. Here came the horror again. For the second straight year, a 2-0 series lead been turned into the brink of elimination three games later for the Blues. Once again, St. Louis played about as well as possible in Game 5 only to find itself near death by the end. It resembled very closely the fateful script of 2013, with Game 6 on Sunday in Chicago as the Blackhawks get better and receive reinforcements.
“At times we dominated, played to our potential, played with structure,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said after the game. “But when we make an error like we did on first goal and like we did on the third goal, they're making us pay. That's what's happening. We're paying for our mistakes. They got people who can finish and they're making us pay.”
Here are some more thoughts on another enthralling tilt between the Blackhawks and Blues:
• Backes came back and logged a lot of time, but he couldn't make the difference. When Blues coach Ken Hitchcock compared his captain to Chicago's before Game 3 – “He's our Toews,” Hitchcock said – it underscored the all-situations, all-over-the-ice presence that Backes offers. He didn't participate in the morning skate and then made his return for warmups. His ensuing workload was heavy – 34 shifts, 21:35 of ice time – but his contributions were light. He divvied out a team-best eight of the Blues' 54 hits, but he was a minus-2 and his most effective net-front presence was a post-goal crosscheck into the back of Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa. It might be too much to ask a player who is fresh off of injury – and quite possibly still very much impaired – to dominate and carry a team. But the Blues blew any emotional advantage offered by Backes' reintroduction to their lineup. And for St. Louis, it was a miserable symmetry to see a shot by its captain eventually head down the other way for the overtime game-winner against them.
• Miller had to win this game for the Blues, and he was outdueled. He didn't need to be perfect. This didn't have to be a 50-save shutout performance. But the Blackhawks couldn't be allowed to pile up goals because there was no way that St. Louis' limited offensive arsenal was going to be able to keep up. Miller held his own, but his night was filled with unnecessary, juicy rebounds that lingered dangerously in front of the net – some controlled by Chicago, some cleared away and out of danger by St. Louis.
• Hossa opened the Blackhawks' scoring by poking in a short carom off his own miss, and Chicago's Ben Smith scored the second goal by working through traffic after a Sheldon Brookbank blast from the point. Then came Toews pantsing Miller on the overtime breakaway. It's reasonable to get beat by one of the best players in the world, but Miller nevertheless failed to make a game-altering save at the most important moment. He was a seismic trade deadline acquisition based on the hope that he'd be the better goaltender in a major playoff series. The echo of that excruciatingly soft goal surrendered in Game 3 still resonated through Game 5. The Blues goalie just hasn't been good enough when it has mattered.
• The Blackhawks showed signs of cleaning up their game and improving, and this series is over if they carry that effort into Game 6. Though the Blackhawks were called for another two mind-numbing first-period penalties that had everyone wondering if their carelessness would bleed into yet another game, they made just one more trip to the box all night, and it was perhaps the most ironic penalty of the postseason yet: Patrick Kane banished behind the glass for, of all things, roughing. That meant everyone else who plays with a little edge to their game toed the line well on Friday. The Blues would have to grind at even strength for whatever they were going to get. Meanwhile, Hossa finally found the back of the net after buzzing around it for the entire series, entering with a team high 21 shots with nothing to show for it. That ended with a resolute first-period effort in which Hossa battled through the slot, fired a shot off Miller, and then fought for the rebound that he flicked in for a 1-0 lead that took the air out of the building. He'd been needed, desperately, to find some sort of scoring touch. Now that he has a taste, it might be difficult to hold him back.
• Chicago has mounted its comeback all without Seabrook, one of its top two defenseman, who was issued a three-game suspension for the Backes hit. He presumably returns on Sunday, fresh and champing at the bit. The Blackhawks have raised themselves from the near-point of oblivion and will get an elite blueliner back for a close-out game. It's almost unfair. “It'll be good to get him back,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “Obviously he plays significant minutes, important minutes.”
• Ben Smith is becoming the latest unlikely postseason solution for the Blackhawks. Finding a second-line center has been an endless saga for Chicago; the Stanley Cup title of 2010 arrived with Patrick Sharp playing out of position to handle the duties, and the championship of 2013 featured veteran Michal Handzus somehow shouldering the load. Four games into this postseason, Quenneville began to go away from Handzus and handed the 2-C duties to Smith, a 5-foot-11 right winger. Smith responded by charging up a line with Kane and Sharp in Game 4, nearly scoring the overtime game-winner himself. He was back on the second line on Friday, owned the boards, shot one puck off the post, and then finally scored on a sequence that began with him face-down on the ice before he circled around to backhand a score past Miller. He's emblematic of Chicago's virtually inexplicable knack for plugging a hole in the lineup that, in almost any other circumstance, would hinder a winning effort. “He had a great game,” Quenneville said.
• Chicago's confidence wasn't rattled while facing a 2-0 series deficit, and by losing on Friday, St. Louis probably lost any chance to unnerve its rivals at all. The Blackhawks blew another lead, surrendering the tying goal early in the third period, but again didn't blow a fuse. “Everyone in this room, the way we were talking before the (overtime) period, it was here's our chance to change things up a little bit,” Toews said. “This is our chance to find a way to get a tough win on the road and go home feeling good.” Give the defending champions an inch, and they will likely take a series.
The teams will meet in Game 6 on Sunday, set for a 3 p.m. ET start in Chicago.