Corey Crawford has had a banner year, and nothing would cap it off better than another Stanley Cup Banner being raised to the rafters. In the first two games against the St. Louis Blues, both Crawford and Brian Elliott have played outstanding hockey. Brian Elliott added a 35 save shutout on Wednesday, and Crawford grabbed the win on Friday stopping 29 of 31 shots and earning a Blackhawks record for most playoff wins by a netminder.
In addition, Duncan Keith made his return proving that Chicago still ‘Runs on Duncan’ as Keith logged 30:59 minutes of ice time. He also contributed a goal and an assist on four shots while adding a hit, and a shot block. His return gave the visiting team some much-needed energy in hostile territory where Keith was booed every time he touched the puck.
Boos for Duncan Keith whenever he touches the puck.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) April 16, 2016
This series is going to be tight with neither team giving up much in the way of matchups. However, the Blackhawks are going back to the United Center where Coach Joel Quenneville will get the last change and control of the chess match. That will likely make the Blues job a little bit harder, but both teams appear to be more than up to the task.
Keith Needs to Give St. Louis the Blues
Keith was all over the ice on Friday, lifting sticks and getting in the middle of passing lanes to pick off passes in the defensive zone. It seemed he was saving Crawford a little work on nearly every possession from the Blues. In addition, Keith was active in the offensive zone throwing the puck on net and providing the tying with seconds to go in the first period. Which ended up being a key goal as it changed the game from that point forward. The Blues came back hard in the second, but the momentum had shifted.
In spite of Ken Hitchcock’s comment that Keith was, “just another player,” the Blues know that he is a key cog int eh Blackhawks machine. He is the engine that drives the puck out of trouble and creates plays for his teammates. Keith also happens to have a substantial shot that seems to find ways into the back of the net when the Blackhawks really need a goal. Like the one he sniped in the waning seconds of the second period in Game 2.
Keith draws a lot of attention from the Blues and can easily draw them into an even bigger hitting game. For every hit made, that it time that the Blackhawks are possessing the puck. This works for Keith as he is quite adept at slipping a check, or making a play before it is landed. He can absorb an exorbitant amount of minutes without showing the usual signs of fatigue, which has been pivotal to the Blackhawks success in years past. It certainly helps that he is coming into the series with fresh legs after serving a six-game suspension, though Keith will have to keep his temper under control as desperation could cause the Blues to try and take Keith out of the game via penalties.
Apply the Buddy System to Tarasenko
Vladimir Tarasenko had a snipe after a pass from behind the net bounced to his stick blade, but it came into the zone on an offsides play which was caught by the Blackhawks video coach Matt Meacham. A coach’s challenge was issued and ruled in the Blackhawks favor much to the chagrin of the Blues and their fans. Had the goal been upheld, there is a good chance the momentum might have stayed with the home team.
Tarasenko later took a slashing penalty out of frustration that turned into another goal. A second Challenge was issued. This time, it was first reviewed by the NHL’s war room, and following a challenge by coach Ken Hitchcock of the Blues. Again, after a series of challenges that took entirely too long, it was ruled in the Blackhawks favor making the game 2-1.
While Tarasenko was held to just one shot in Game 1, he came alive in Game 2 which is exactly what the Blackhawks expected out of the Blues marksman. He registered four shots, and a goal in his 16 plus minutes on the ice. The fact is, Tarasenko is going to find his shots, and more than likely some of them will go in. He is after all one of the league’s premier scorers.
The Blackhawks will have to make sure that they take away time and space for the Russian winger, making him work for every opportunity he gets in the hopes of neutralizing the Blues top scoring threat or at least limiting the quality chances. If Tarasenko is putting the puck on net, he’ll have to battle screens and a Blackhawks counterpart that sticks to him like velcro.
Go With the Crow
Crawford, like Elliott, has been nothing short of fantastic as both netminders have put up their best efforts. Crawford stopped 28 of 30 shots, with the second being a last ditch attempt by the Blues that Crawford while the clock registered mere seconds remaining in the third. It is certainly one he’d like to have back, but the game was won at that point.
Crawford also stopped 18-19 shots in Game 1 giving him a .939 save percentage and 1.40 goals against average for the series so far. Coming off of a 12-game absence, it wouldn’t have been unusual for a netminder to have some rust to shed, but Crawford came out of the gates in his early season form after a single shaky regular season start in game 82. Crawford vital to the Blackhawks success, when he plays as he has in the first two games it is a major confidence boost. He’ll need to continue to put up that kind of effort throughout the playoffs if the Blackhawks want a chance at raising another banner to the rafters of the Madhouse on Madison.
— NHL (@NHL) April 16, 2016
Crawford saw a bigger test in Game 2, and Game 3 is likely to be more of the same as the Blues know they will have to come out aggressive in order to silence the raucous crowd that will fill the United Center on Sunday afternoon. The team is fueled by their rabid fanbase, and the Blues will be looking to take away any advantages the Blackhawks home ice can provide in order to return to St. Louis with their home ice advantage restored. Crawford needs to stand in their way and do everything in his power to keep them from taking back the ground the Blackhawks have gained.
A little momentum in Game 3 could be the confidence killer for the Blues who have always been shaky at best in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Serve Up Some Bread and Butter
The duo of Kane and Panarin has been explosive from the outset, and the chemistry they share has grown exponentially over the course of the season. They are the odd couple to be sure when you dissect their personalities, but they bring out the best in one another both on and off the ice.
— Daily Herald (@dailyherald) April 17, 2016
In the first two games, Patrick Kane has thrown eight shots on net but has been held to two assists. His linemate, Artemi Panarin has registered seven shots and provided a single empty net goal, and Artem Anisimov has registered three shots. The trio contributes 96 of the Blackhawks 234 goals during the regular season, and they will have to get on the scoresheet in Game 3.
When this line is clicking, most teams struggle to find and answer to stop them. It forces the teams best defenders to focus more time and energy on slowing the trio down, and Kane and Panarin thrive on that. It also opens up the ice for the Blackhawks top line as the opponent is frequently forced to choose to focus on the Kane line or Jonathan Toews’ line. Kane and his Russian linemates will need to make that choice difficult for the Blues.
In St. Louis, they had the advantage in the chess match with the last change, but in Chicago, the ice will tilt in favor of Coach Quenneville and more than likely Kane’s line as Q will undoubtedly look for matchups that are advantageous to the snipers. Certainly, the Blackhawks top line has had some looks of their own, with Toews already taking 11 shots and gathering an assist while linemates Andrew Ladd and Marian Hossa have added four and nine respectively. If both lines can find the scoring touch the Blackhawks can be lethal to just about any opponent.
Jonathan Toews having a terrific game at the dot. #Blackhawks captain has won 15 of 20 faceoffs.
— Chris Kuc (@ChrisKuc) April 16, 2016
Toews will likely have his hands full on the dot and getting up close and personal with Tarasenko, but that should give Kane and Panarin a little more room to roam. Everyone, including the Blues, knows that this line thrives when they can open up the ice a bit. Certainly, the Blues will throw everything they can at the wingers, but if Anisimov can get to the net, there is bound to be some loose change.
Patrick Kane was kept off the scoresheet 18 times during the regular season. The Blackhawks lost 16 of those games. There is no player capable of changing a game the way that Kane can when the puck is on his tape, and the Blackhawks will be counting on him to tilt the ice in their favor from the first puck drop. If Kane can ignite, chances are the whole line will explode offensively.
Certainly, the Blackhawks top line has had some looks of their own, if both lines can find the scoring touch the Blackhawks can be lethal to just about any opponent.
Keep Home Ice Advantage
The Blackhawks stole home ice advantage when they split the two games in St. Louis, and they will be looking to hang onto it by collecting wins in both Games 3 and 4. The crowd will likely be amped up for the first game of the 2016 Playoffs, and the Blackhawks will undoubtedly be looking to feed off that energy.
If Keith, Crawford, and the dominant Kane line show up, there is a good chance they will be headed back to St. Louis looking to grab just one more game out of the final three.
Their experience has already put that plan firmly in the back of their minds, but they are facing a highly skilled and hungry adversary in St. Louis. They won’t be able to make any mistakes because these games are likely to remain tight on scoring, and it is clear that a lucky bounce very well could be the deciding factor. The opportunities are going to be few and far between on both ends, so the Blackhawks will have to take advantage of every opportunity, firing shots whenever they are in range, clogging up the crease in search of greasy goals, and capitalizing on power plays.
There is never an easy road in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and no team knows that as well as the Blackhawks but they have plenty of weapons in their arsenal, and Coach Q is at his best when he has the last move in the chess match that is last change.
Kristi is a long time hockey fan who grew up in, and around hockey rinks across the United States and Canada. A native Chicagoan, Loucks has always been an avid Blackhawks fan. Kristi also covers the Chicago Cubs and writes suspense thrillers, when not covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow Kristi on twitter @louckske