After a decidedly unimpressive regular season, the Chicago Blackhawks completed a first-round series victory over the St. Louis Blues on Sunday afternoon. The 5-1 victory at the United Center on Sunday makes the Blackhawks the first team to advance to the second round on the Western side of the NHL playoff tree and marks the first step in that team's journey to repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
But at least as interesting as the ‘Hawks success in this series is the Blues’ failure.
It’s possible to feel sorry for St. Louis, a very good team that was eliminated far earlier than one would have expected against a different first-round opponent. But there really isn’t much reason to pity the club, because the reality is that it was the author of its own demise.
The immediate cause of that failure was evident to anybody who watched the decisive sixth game. St. Louis had six power-play opportunities before Chicago had its first, and those six chances (five of them with the game tied 1-1) offered the Blues a beautiful opportunity to build up a lead against the Blackhawks. They failed to do so; for long stretches with the man advantage, they failed to even threaten offence against their opponent.
It was a similar story at even strength, where St. Louis dominated possession in the second period, but barely generated any chances and couldn’t score the go-ahead goal.
Chicago, in contrast, was handed a power-play opportunity at the end of the second that carried over to the third; Jonathan Toews scored and the Blackhawks never looked back, putting goal after goal after goal past a floundering Ryan Miller in the third period.
There is, in other words, a really easy story about squandered opportunities in a pivotal game. But focusing solely on the Blues’ failings in a crucial game misses a larger tale of error; as in fractal geometry there’s a pattern of critical mistakes by St. Louis that repeats itself at larger scales.
The next part of that patten is the chain of events that led to a first-round matchup against the exceptional Blackhawks.
On April 4, St. Louis had 111 points, which tied the Blues for the best record in the NHL and put them seven points ahead of Colorado for the Central Division lead. It should have been an insurmountable advantage, but St. Louis lost six consecutive games down the stretch (including a 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Avalanche) that allowed Denver’s team to finish the season with a one-point edge on the Blues for the division title.
The result was that Colorado drew the Minnesota Wild in the first round, while St. Louis was forced to face off against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The failings on the ice, however, have a parallel higher up in the organization. The St. Louis management group approached the trade deadline with a franchise that was a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and instead of using the team’s considerable assets to fortify an already formidable lineup, they opted for a quixotic approach, attacking an imaginary weakness in net.
In Jaroslav Halak, the Blues had a very competent starting goalie in the prime of his career, a 28-year-old with a 0.918 career save percentage. Instead of sticking with what they had and addressing other areas, the Blues opted to send out a bevy of futures to acquire Ryan Miller, a 33-year-old "name" goaltender with a career 0.915 save percentage.
Or, as Bleacher Report’s Dave Lozo noted at the time:
The issue with this deal is the negligible difference between Miller and Halak. Miller has been slightly better than Halak so far this season, but there are no guarantees that he will continue to be the better goaltender over the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs. Heck, Halak was playing better than Miller in the month leading to this trade. Cup contenders address weaknesses at the trade deadline. The Blues were a supermodel who had plastic surgery to remove a small beauty mark on their back.
To acquire Miller (and centre Steve Ott), St. Louis shipped off Halak, Chris Stewart, a first round draft pick, a conditional third round pick and excellent prospect William Carrier (a second round pick in 2013).
It’s a particularly interesting trade in hindsight, not only given Miller’s struggles against Chicago, but some of the comments made along the way.
During the second period of Game 6, for example, CBC’s play-by-play team mentioned a belief among the St. Louis Blues coaches that they couldn’t win a game in which the scoring chances were even, because Chicago had an edge in finishing ability owing of its employment of game breakers like Patrick Kane.
It wouldn’t have been hard for St. Louis to add its own offensive star at the deadline had it opted to fortify its forward corps rather than adding Miller.
Thomas Vanek, one of the league’s top goal scorers, was moved at the deadline for a top prospect and a conditional second-round draft pick. Marian Gaborik, who has a rich history as a sniper, went for a depth player, a second-round pick and a third-round pick. Mike Cammalleri, who had 26 goals, was widely rumoured to be available in trade but ultimately didn’t get dealt in a spring where the price for rentals was absurdly low.
As fun as it is from a storytelling perspective to focus on that one critical error that made all the difference, real life rarely works that way. The Blues made a series of mistakes, starting with managerial incompetence at the deadline, extending to an inexcusable failure to hold down a favourable first-round playoff berth and culminating in a Game 6 collapse against a very good Chicago team.
Where do the Blues go from here? There’s a difficult summer ahead.
Ryan Miller, who would presumably have been re-signed after a successful playoff run, is bound for free agency and St. Louis now has to make the difficult choice of either offering him an extension or finding a new No. 1 goaltender.
Changes may also be made to the coaching staff or to the core group of players, both of which have been around for lots of regular season success but have now been ousted in three consecutive first-round series, none of which reached a seventh game.
Whatever happens, the situation will be much more difficult than it would have been because the Blues already used their best futures to add Miller in trade and because the team has very little cap space with which to make a play for free agents.