Recap from Game 4 can be found here.
1. Gut Check Time
After claiming Games 1 and 2 in dramatic fashion, the Blues return home tied at two games apiece. They had an opportunity to quell any momentum that the Blackhawks had built with their Game 3 shutout, but failed miserably. In fact, St. Louis actually fueled the fire by allowing their opponent to rally from a 1-goal deficit late in the third period before eventually winning it in overtime by the score of 4-3.
The overarching takeaway from Games 3 and 4 is simple: the Blues had their opponent up against the wall, but were unable to finish the job.
Now, it’s a whole new series.
“It was do or die,” Chicago forward Bryan Bickell said. “We didn’t want to be down 3-1 going into their building in a couple days. They’ve come back twice in the first three games, and I think we have the same character, do or die. I think everybody stepped up when times were needed and, again, we’re happy to get the win.”
This is not unfamiliar territory.
This is the second year in a row that they had an opportunity to really put the pressure on their opponent with a split of Games 3 and 4, but failed to do so. Now the series shifts back to St. Louis with Chicago riding a wave of momentum.
After the first three games, this team was bombarded with questions about last year's quarterfinal loss to Los Angeles and they've held steady in their assertion that they have learned from it and understand what it takes to win in this League.
Now it’s time to find out what they're are made of.
“They got the momentum now,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We've got to take it back… This is a momentum builder for them, and we've got to find a way to regroup and take it back from them. That's a big challenge for us. I think we're up to it, but we're going to have a little bit of a heart-to-heart, get back on our toes again. The way we played in the second and third period was really good, and that's what we've got to get back to as much as we can.”
2. Tarasenko, Oshie, Sobotka and Ott
While they were sidelined with two completely different injuries, both Vladimir Tarasenko and TJ Oshie came back sooner than expected.
Tarasenko, who was supposed to miss at least six weeks after he underwent surgery on his right hand in mid-March, came back in time for Game 1, while Oshie returned for Game 2 after a hit to the head against the Minnesota Wild sidelined him at the end of the regular season.
Prior to Tarasenko’s return, coach Ken Hitchcock raved about his work ethic—since it was a wrist injury, he could continue skating and condition himself ahead of the playoffs.
That extra practice time has paid dividends for the young Russian, who has been absolutely sensational thus far, tallying four goals through the first four games, including a pair in Game 4.
Tarasenko has plenty of confidence in his puck-handling abilities and seems to have embraced his role as this team’s primary threat. He has also developed a bit of swagger to his game, which is vital for a young skater, especially when you’re playing against the defending Champions.
“Exceptional,” Hitchcock said of no. 91. “He’s been a great player every game—young, emerging player. Hopefully he stays with it and helps us a lot. He's really shooting the puck well. He's putting pucks on net. He's not making the second or third play. Everything's coming at the net. He's got such a great shot. He can pick corners like he did today.”
Tarasenko has been a positive since he returned to the lineup.
Oshie, however, has been…a mystery.
Through three games, he has zero points and only three shots on goal, all of which came in Game 4 (he missed the net with four other shots). Pat Imig has more of the historical context on Oshie’s postseason disappearance, but I think he’s still being hindered by that “upper-body” injury. He does not have the same jump in his step and he has had a few uncharacteristic turnovers and an equally uncharacteristic defensive gaffe that led to Chicago’s second goal in Game 4.
Perhaps it’s just rust from having to sit out a few games, but I’m concerned that Oshie’s struggles may be the result of a larger health issue.
Speaking of injuries, how about Vladimir Sobotka? He was kneed by Bryan Bickell in Game 2, took a slapshot off the wrist in Game 3 and last night he hobbled off the ice after being driven into the boards (cleanly) by Bickell.
How much time has he missed? None.
How much of an impact has it had on his play? None. Four games played, three assists and 10 shots on net.
“He’s really a powerful guy, way more powerful than people realize,” Hitchcock told NHL.com during the regular season. “He trains with those MMA people and the training that that sport does is all about explosiveness and power, stuff like that. He’s really a physical guy.”
In the pleasant surprise department, I was a bit leery the decision to move Steve Ott to the top line ahead of Game 1, but he has been fantastic for the Blues this series.
First and foremost he’s creating havoc with his physicality—throwing guys into the boards and battling for positioning in front of the net. You also can’t discount his contributions on face-offs (he has won at least 63 percent of his draws in three of the four games).
“He’s a veteran guy,” Hitchcock said. “He knows how to play at this time of year. This is why we brought him here. We expect him to be a good player for us.”
3. Line shuffling
The Good: Big fan of moving Sobotka to the top line with Steen and Oshie midway through Game 4. It allowed Steen to move back to his regular position on the wing and offered a nice counterpunch to Jonathan Toews in the face-off circle. The only downside is the grit that’s lost without Backes and/or Ott (important because of Quenneville’s willingness to put Bickell out there with Toews and Kane).
The Baffling: One line change I’m still not sure on was the decision to swap Adam Cracknell and Ryan Reaves. That fourth line of Porter/Lapierre/Cracknell was extremely effective as a unit. I could understand the argument that Reaves’ performance has warranted a drop to the fourth line, but that group had great chemistry and was consistently generating scoring chances when they were on the ice (they, along with Tarasenko were responsible for the majority of scoring chances early in Game 1).
When Sobotka was moved to the first line, there was some other shuffling that ensued and Ott ultimately ended up with Lapierre and Cracknell.
I can understand moving Sobotka to the front line during the game, but I don’t think breaking up that fourth line was such a good idea.
Blue Notes: David Backes
David Backes did not skate with the team today. When asked to update his status, Hitchcock would only offer, "He's not skating today, so read into that what you will... Hopefully he's able to get back before Seabrook or by Seabrook's time, so it doesn't turn into an advantage for Chicago."
I'm not sure what Hitchcock stands to gain by playing it so close to the vest with Backes. It's evident that the "upper-body" injury is located above the shoulders and Chicago's not going to alter its lineup based on whether or not he plays (Bickell's still going to be with Toews and Kane, no one extra will be dressed or scratched). There's the possibility that he's playing mind games with his own team (keeping them on their toes or something along those lines), but again, what does he stand to gain? This team has been "red-linining" for basically the entire series, so the buy-in hasn't been a problem.
It's worth noting that the NHL's return to play protocol for concussions is a mininmum of six days. Friday night would be day number six for David Backes (first day he'd be eligible to return).
Brian Haenchen is a St. Louis Blues hockey and Saint Louis men’s basketball columnist for InsideSTL. Follow him on Twitter @Brian_Haenchen and check out his website Hank’s Sports Blog.