St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock offered an opinion whose layers he may not have fully grasped after his team knocked the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks out of the playoffs with a 3-2 win on Monday in Game 7 of their first-round series at Scottrade Center.
“It was really eye-opening what a championship team like them can do,” he said of the Hawks. “You find yourself on the bench in awe sometimes.”
St. Louis displayed remarkable resiliency in this series, weathering Chicago’s rally from two games down in the series and weathering Chicago’s rally from two goals down on Monday. When the nuanced truth is told, however, this series win was as much about Chicago’s offseason defections as it was about St. Louis’ maturation and improvement in all areas of the game.
Consider just the biggest of the 10 names Chicago lost off last season’s Stanley Cup-winning team: Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Johnny Oduya and Kris Versteeg. Do you think those players might have made a difference in a series that was ultimately decided by one goal? Of course they would have, but that’s the challenge and the beauty of the salary-cap era that late Blackhawks owner William Wirtz championed.
Dynasties are hard to build and harder to maintain.
The Blues have been trying to reach the Chicago and Los Angeles echelon for years, only to fall flat so many times after successful regular seasons. St. Louis has finished either first or second in the Central Division the past five seasons, reaching at least 107 points four times and registering 60 in the lockout-shortened, 48-game season of 2012-13.
Despite that consistency, St. Louis had just one playoff series win over that span, and just one in its last 12 seasons before Monday.
From the start of this series, however, it was obvious that these Blues were a cut above the previous editions. For starters, they got elite goaltending from Brian Elliott, who finished the series with a .929 save percentage while playing all the goaltending minutes of every game.
The Blues’ blue line is deeper than in years past, adding promising rookie Colton Parayko to a corps that already included Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester. St. Louis also has a game-changing offensive talent in Vladimir Tarasenko, who had four goals in the series despite Hitchcock’s curious decision to limit his ice time.
That this series came down to what former Blackhawk Troy Brouwer called the ugliest goal of his career, and what Hitchcock called “mini golf,” is a testament to the Blackhawks’ championship mettle. The Blackhawks did not go quietly and the Blackhawks will be back next season with fresher legs and a retooled roster, but St. Louis is moving on and the Blues are deservedly eyeing bigger goals.
With the Kings and Blackhawks both out of the playoffs, you can make an argument for seven of the nine remaining teams to win the Cup, excluding only the Predators and the Islanders. St. Louis will have its hands full with offensively loaded Dallas in the next round, and if they survive that series, they’ll probably have to take on a tough Pacific Division team just to reach the Cup Final.
None of that mattered to Hitchcock on Monday, however. He had just slain the dragon, and he vowed to take a moment to revel in that impressive fact.
“The naysayers can all take a day off,” he said. “We can celebrate for a day, and then you all can start bashing us again.”
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