Star Power the Difference as Chicago Puts Blues on Ropes in OT-Packed Series

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Star Power the Difference as Chicago Puts Blues on Ropes in OT-Packed Series
Scott Rovak/USA Today

Chicago Blackhawks fans no doubt sent some hate mail to Brooks Orpik for his March 30 injurious hit to their team's captain Jonathan Toews. Should have been a thank-you card.

A late-season injury that isn't too serious is sometimes the best thing that can happen to a team. Especially, one like the 2013-14 Blackhawks, who took a 3-2 first-round series lead against the St. Louis Blues Friday night on Toews' backhand, breakaway overtime goal at Scottrade Center.

Toews and Patrick Kane looked fresh and excited for Game 5 in St. Louis. You don't think the injuries that kept them out for the final few weeks of the regular season had anything to do with that? (They did).

I've personally seen the benefits that time off can do for a top player in once the playoffs start. In 1996, the Avalanche team I covered got big, two-way defenseman Uwe Krupp back for the postseason after he missed all but six games of the 1995-96 regular season. Krupp was fresh and rested and eager to get back to what he loved after years of grinding, every-night hockey for mostly mediocre teams. He responded with 16 points in 22 playoff games, including the triple-overtime game-winner in Game 4 against Florida that won the Avs a Stanley Cup. In 2001-02, Peter Forsberg missed all of the regular season, only to return for the playoffs and lead all NHL players with 27 points in 20 games. 

In 1998, Sergei Fedorov missed most of the regular season because of a contract impasse with the Detroit Red Wings. He signed just in time for the playoffs (shocker) and was probably the best player that postseason, even though he didn't win the Conn Smythe Trophy. 

Kane missed the final few weeks with a knee injury that, had it occurred in the postseason, would have been disastrous for coach Joel Quenneville. He would have missed 3-4 weeks, but that just happened to be how much time was left in the regular season when he went down. Perfect! A nice rest! 

Kane was able to rehabilitate in a proper manner, take a bit of a mental break from hockey after playing in the Cup Finals last year, followed by a short summer, followed by an Olympic schedule, followed by the actual Olympics. Same thing with Toews. His injury (a shoulder) allowed him to just...take a rest

Any more of a rest, and it would have been a problem. Same with Kane. But the fact that both were able to start the playoffs—as opposed to some kind of parachute-in thing, which never seems to work—has allowed Chicago to have their top two players back on the ice with fresh appreciation for what they do for a living, along with their rested synapses. The Greeks always said: "A sound mind in a healthy body."

Charles Rex Arbogast

Chicago won this game because their top two stars were better than St. Louis' top two...well, they don't really have any stars, do they? Will this ultimately be the post-mortem explanation on another failed Blues playoff team? The Blackhawks have Toews and Kane, and the Blues have just...lots of pretty good players. Real good players, actually. But no stars. 

Once Toews got that puck at center ice, following a save by Corey Crawford and alert pass up the center of the ice by Duncan Keith—which hit the shin pads of Andrew Shaw, then went on to split Blues defenders Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold—you knew the puck was going to go in. Captain Serious, MC Johnny Gold, with a game on his stick? Just go ahead and turn the red light on and let's get out of here. 

Here is how Keith and Shaw described the winning sequence to CSN Chicago afterward:

“I’m not going to give myself that much credit,” Keith said to laughs. “I just tried to get it out of the zone, tried to clear it. It’s lucky break by us.”

So was the puck hitting Shaw’s shin pad. It’s the second deft deflection for Shaw’s equipment, which redirected a goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final vs. Boston last June.

“Right place, right time I guess,” Shaw said. “I was back-checking, and good things came from it.”

This was a great game, possibly the best in the playoffs thus far. But in the end, Chicago's star power made the difference. The Blues still lack that dominant first-line center to beat a team with a Toews on it. The way this series has played out is all too familiar for depressed Blues fans, whose team has been in existence since 1967 and has made the playoffs most every year until now. But they still don't have a Stanley Cup. The Blues' history of playoff futility is enough to make even Chicago Cubs or Buffalo Bills fans feel better.

Before the game, the excellent, longtime columnist of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Bernie Miklasz, painted in stark terms the pressure the Blues were under coming into the this game:

This tormented Blues’ nucleus has lost its last seven postseason road games. Two at Los Angeles in 2012, three in LA last year, and two at Chicago this week. Given that pattern, the Blues don’t want to put themselves into position of having to win at Chicago.

To capture this series, the Blues have to protect and defend their house. It’s that simple. If the Blues win Game 5, they’re guaranteed a Game 7 at home (if necessary). If the Blues surrender Game 5, then nothing is guaranteed. This blood feud could end by sundown Sunday.

The visitors will be wired tonight. The Blackhawks surely have noted the Blues’ sorry postseason history, and the inherent vulnerability that comes with it. The Blackhawks have to sense that this is a wide-open opportunity to invade Scottrade and send the Blues spiraling.

All of the pressure is on the Blues in this one. Chicago has won two Stanley Cups since 2010, and no one can take that away. The Blues do not have the luxury of rationalization. They cannot draw comfort from past trophies. Another early postseason exit — especially at the hands of their rivals — would be devastating.

The Blues were in this spot a year ago. They opened a first-round series by winning two close ones from Los Angeles at home, then lost two at LA. Still discouraged by the lost trip to SoCal, the Blues were pushed into the hole by a demoralizing loss to the Kings in Game 5. The Blues couldn’t recover and got tossed from the tournament in Game 6.

Are the Blues done, after losing Game 5 at home?

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I'm afraid the Blues won't recover from this loss either. They had this game, too, which only makes it hurt more. David Backes made an inspirational, Willis Reed-type return to the lineup, and they seemed in good shape after Alex Pietrangelo's tying goal early in the third period. Oshie had the lead on his stick with under 10 minutes to go, after yet another odd-man rush started by speedy Blues forward Jaden Schwartz, who sent a saucer pass over to Oshie on the right side. But the puck got stuck in Oshie's skates for a half-second, allowing Corey Crawford to slide over with just enough time to spare and block what should have been Oshie's tie-breaking goal.

It's almost unbelievable that the Blues are right here again, on the brink of elimination after another 2-0 series lead. 

What will it take to finally get St. Louis to the silvery sheen of Cup-land? 

Stars, that's what. They make the path brighter, easier to navigate.

 

Adrian Dater has been covering the NHL since 1995 with The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.

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