There is a scene ubiquitous in action movies where the protagonist (or just as often, his love interest) finds himself hanging off a building or a cliff or an airplane by the tips of his fingers. After 30 seconds or so of suspense, he manages to pull himself back to safety.
We might think of the Game 3 Chicago Blackhawks as that action hero, except that they dragged the scene out for 55 minutes before Marcus Kruger’s empty-net goal completed a 2-0 victory.
Any consideration of the game must start with Jonathan Toews’ marker a little over four minutes into the contest. It isn’t a choice as much as a lack of alternatives; in a game that saw both goaltenders beat by shooters a combined one time, the key event isn’t all that hard to isolate.
Toews has a reputation as a clutch playoff performer (not undeserved given his two Cup rings and Conn Smythe Trophy) and this was as critical a goal as any he’s scored, but it isn’t likely to find its way into many end-of-year highlight reels:
St. Louis goaltender Ryan Miller made it clear after the contest that he wasn’t happy about allowing a goal like that:
Ryan Miller on the goal he gave up tonight to Toews 4:10 into the game: “Just not a good goal. We'll leave it at that.”— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) April 22, 2014
As weak a goal as it was, on its strength the Blackhawks managed to climb back into their first-round NHL playoff series against St. Louis.
Up 2-0 in the series, the Blues had a golden opportunity to get a stranglehold on Chicago with a win. The importance of establishing a 3-0 lead was increased by the loss of team captain David Backes to injury (on a controversial check for which Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook was suspended three games) in Game 2.
But the Blackhawks were just good enough to keep that from happening.
Certainly the Blues had no reason to be ashamed of their performance. Down 1-0 and after a couple of penalties, St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock was asked on the NBC broadcast for his view of the contest, and he made it clear he was happy with what he’d seen.
“We’re playing a hell of a hockey game,” the veteran coach said, calling it “one of the best road games we’ve played in a long time.”
St. Louis had a 34-25 edge in shots over the course of the contest, a number which accurately reflects the balance of play. With the exception of that one iffy goal, Miller was strong in net, and after the game he echoed Hitchcock’s view of the contest:
Blues goalie Ryan Miller on Game 3 loss: "We were playing good hockey. They were able to survive and Crawford played well.” #Blackhawks— Chris Kuc (@ChrisKuc) April 22, 2014
Corey Crawford, who had surrendered a combined eight goals in the first two games of the series, was named first star of the contest. The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc revealed that Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville had talked to Crawford between Games 2 and 3:
#Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville met with goalie Corey Crawford yesterday about his play. Crawford responded with shutout vs. Blues.— Chris Kuc (@ChrisKuc) April 22, 2014
Crawford certainly was good in the game, but the reality is that despite the number of shots on net this was a tight defensive contest between the two teams, the kind of game coaches love. The Blues ran up a nice edge in puck possession, but outside of the power play they mostly had to settle for blasting the puck into traffic and hoping for a break that never came.
Chicago wasn’t good enough to consistently keep the puck in the offensive zone after taking the 1-0 lead, but the team did a very nice job of forcing the Blues to the outside in the defensive zone.
With stars like Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp on the payroll, the Blackhawks can play an up-tempo offensive game with any team in the league. But they showed in Game 3 that they can doggedly hang on to a one-goal lead, too. And, as past experience will doubtless have shown that team, no club advances far into the playoffs without being able to win in multiple ways.
Chicago now needs to build on this victory. The Blackhawks will (once again) be in terrible shape if they drop their next game, and unless Miller hands them another goal like the one that won this contest they need to find a way to muster more offense.
As for St. Louis, the Blues have lots of reasons to be happy with the game they played. If they can put in the same performance in Game 4, the odds are that they'll win that one, and if they do they will once again be firmly in control of this series.