Let’s start with the obvious. St. Louis absolutely, positively, unconditionally had to have this game.
The Blackhawks were without top defenseman Duncan Keith, St. Louis was at home and the Blues had that suffocating history that captain David Backes tried to shrug off in pre-game interviews of having won just one playoff series in the last 12 years.
A loss in Game 1 would have been disastrous.
Backes relieved some of the weight on his teammates (sort of) by banking a shot off Chicago defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk at 9:04 of overtime to lift the Blues to a 1-0 victory and a 1-0 lead in their first-round series on Wednesday at Scottrade Center.
The positive spin for St. Louis was that it won the game, it has beaten Chicago four times this season in extra time, and it got a superhuman effort from Brian Elliott in goal. Elliott didn’t play enough games to garner serious consideration for the Vezina Trophy this season, but he made a case that his NHL-topping .930 save percentage during the regular season was no fluke with a spectacular 35-save shutout against the Blackhawks.
That said, when Blues coach Ken Hitchcock goes to the game film, he won’t like what he sees if he’s being honest.
Chicago was a mediocre possession team all season while St. Louis was No. 7 in the NHL, per war-on-ice.com. That wasn’t the case in Game 1 where the Hawks outshot the Blues 35-18 and looked like they were playing keep away for long stretches.
Credit St. Louis for getting in shooting lanes and forcing the Blackhawks to simply hold the puck rather than rifling more attempts at the net (one reason you can’t rely solely on Corsi or Fenwick to measure possession). Still, Chicago looked like its old self with the engine that usually drives its possession, Keith, serving the final game of his six-game suspension for slashing Charlie Coyle in the face.
“I think we did a lot of good things,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews told reporters covering the game. “I think for the most part it’s an effort we can build on.”
You wouldn’t expect a coach to sound the alarm after a win, but after his team recorded 41 hits on the NHL’s often dubious stat sheet, Hitchcock said the Blues need to get into the 70s if they’re going to win.
The sentiment was reminiscent of last year’s postseason when so many analysts (including NBC’s Pierre McGuire, who was at it again) kept saying the Hawks’ defense would wear down through continual pounding. Instead, Chicago’s blue line got stronger on its way to its third Stanley Cup in the last six years.
The Blues trying to go for 70 hits is a lot like Kobe taking 50 shots. It might be entertaining to watch, but is it really a smart strategy?
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) April 14, 2016
Hitchcock’s focus is in exactly the wrong place. When you outhit the other team by a wide margin, it just means you don’t have the puck and when you don’t have the puck, reams of statistical analysis show that you don’t often win.
If St. Louis wants to continue in this vein, the Blackhawks will welcome the strategy. Chicago won’t be rattled by a physical approach, Chicago certainly won’t be rattled by a 1-0 series deficit (it rallied from 2-0 down to beat the Blues two years ago) and it will have Keith back in Game 2 on Friday.
If St. Louis really wants to exorcise its Blackhawk demons (it is 3-8 lifetime against Chicago in the postseason), it had better figure out how to up its possession game, not its testosterone game, or else the Blues will be answering the same questions they always seem to be answering in April.
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