NHL Round One Playoffs Preview: Chicago vs. St. Louis

The reigning champs weren’t able to score a goal in the series opener, but tonight for Game 2 in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blackhawks can be expected to surge back and make a statement that they won’t take this challenge laying down. They know how to win and will want to remind the St. Louis Blues that they were the ones who sent them packing three playoff years in a row. And that the Blues still look like the team from their previous postseason failures.

Maybe goaltender Brian Elliott is the one true change that can finally drive the Blues into the second round. If he can shut out the Hawks once again, that dream may get closer to a reality.

He posted the Blues’ first playoff shutout in four years, so it is that same goalie, Elliott, who will look to lift his team to a 2-0 lead Friday night over the Chicago Blackhawks, But there is a twist, the Hawks will get their top defenseman Duncan Keith back tonight in the Western Conference quarterfinals. And he has always been a difference maker.

This Blues core could be facing their final shot at a long playoff run with the same coach, Ken Hitchcock, and the same nuclues in their current roster, if they repeat another first-round exit, like the previous three seasons.

Elliott, seems confident though that he is the new face of goaltending in St. Louis, as they try to change their postseason fortunes. They had a really strong regular season, and a dominant closing stretch. Elliott went 12-1-1 with a 1.90 goals-against average in his last 16 games which is spectacular. That earned Elliott the starting position ahead of often injured Jake Allen. And that confidence in him paid off in Wednesday’s opener where he was the decisive advantage.

Elliott made 35 saves in a 1-0 overtime win that ended when David Backes’ pass deflected off Chicago defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk’s skate, which sneakily got past goalie Corey Crawford.

It was an ugly goal but they’ll take it because it gave the Blues their third straight victory over Chicago and a hell of a lot more confidence going into Game 2.

“You just try to get your emotions in check and try not to get too revved up, calm yourself down a little bit when needed,” Elliott said. ”At this time of the year it’s just about that next game. You’re not looking at the past or the future.”

Elliott has led the league with a .930 save percentage and posted a 1.76 GAA and three shutouts in his final eight starts, so he is on a roll and will look to stay hot in between the pipes.

He has some experience, as he started all six games in a 2013 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings, but he has only made his second postseason appearance since then, when he played in Game 1. Elliott stunned fans as he got the Blues’ first playoff shutout since he shared one with Jaroslav Halak on April 14, 2012. It’s a positive start for a team looking to go further.

St. Louis, though, should not get too over confident. The Blues who though they were in control against the Blackhawks in the 2014 playoffs, after winning twice in overtime at home to start off the series, went on to lose four straight games, two of which went to OT and they lost. It was one of the most exciting and closest series in that post-season.

Strangely enough, all three Blues wins in this regular season’s five-game series needed overtime, and they’ve played four straight OT playoff games against the Blackhawks in St. Louis. Chicago has the stronger OT record going 4-1 in overtime games in last season’s playoffs on their way to their third Stanley Cup in six seasons.

The Blackhawks are well-tested and they think they played well on Wednesday they just couldn’t solve Elliott. But with the return of Keith, it will give their blueline and offense a big boost which can be the difference maker. He was the 2015 Conn Smythe winner, and served the final game of a six-game suspension for high-sticking Minnesota’s Charlie Coyle on March 29, when he sat out in Game 1.

“We’re happy to have him back,” coach Chicago Joel Quenneville said. “He gives us some speed, he gives us a lot of different looks and a lot of other options.”

Crawford has also been sharp with 17 saves in just his second game back from nearly a month-long absence due to a head injury and possible concussion syndrome. The only downside to Chicago play was their special teams, they went 0 for 5 on the power play, so look for that to be addressed in tonight’s game. It won’t be all merited on skill though, winning in the playoffs also takes some ‘puck luck’ and the Blues had it.

Hitchcock actually thought Backes’ goal was “fluky.”

“That’s the type of goal that gets scored in overtime,” said Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. “But they deserved it too, and we’ve got to find a way to score.”

They will probably find a way to score tonight.

Our Pick: Blackhawks over Blues, 3-2