They've dominated the Blues ever since Game 1 of Round 2 last year. Time for revenge.
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On occasion, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has been known to misrepresent how far back in the standings his club stood. But on March 28, following a loss to Los Angeles on home ice, the team dropped out of the playoff picture.
“Three weeks ago, we looked up and we were in ninth place, and legit ninth place,” Hitchcock said. “I think that reality check, waking up one morning and just assuming you’re going to be in the playoffs and then all of the sudden you’re sitting in ninth place is exactly what this team needed. A reality check of getting back to who we were had to come sooner or later.”
The Blues won 12 of their last 15 games, wrapped up the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference with a 3-1 victory over Chicago Saturday and secured home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Their prize: the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
LA defeated San Jose 3-2 late Saturday night, setting up a rematch of last year’s second-round series, swept by the Kings, who went on to win the franchise’s first Cup. Including three more victories in this year’s regular season, LA will carry an eight-game winning streak against the Blues into the conference quarterfinals.
The club, which finished the regular season 29-17-2, should be comfortable opening the postseason at Scottrade Center, where it has won six consecutive games and seven of their last eight. On Saturday, Jaden Schwartz netted two goals, David Backes had two assists, and goaltender Brian Elliott made 22 saves to beat the Blackhawks.
"Our goaltending caught fire,” Blues forward Alexander Steen said. “The thing we should look back on right now is the way that we've been playing the last little while. It seems like we've been more compact, more solid, a real solid game from the goalie right throughout the whole lineup. Very solid going forward here.”
The Blues-Kings’ series is expected to open Tuesday at Scottrade Center, with the likelihood of Game 2 on Thursday. The series is a 2-2-1-1-1, meaning game Nos. 5 and 7 (if necessary) will be back in St. Louis.
After wrapping up against Chicago, the Blues turned their attention to the LA-San Jose game, knowing that they would meet the winner. Prior to the finish of the late game, Hitchcock sized up the competition.
“Both of these teams are big strong hockey clubs on top of their games right now,” he said. “We’re going to have to step up to beat (LA) or San Jose. San Jose is probably playing the best of anybody.”
This month, the Blues seemed to have straightened out their issues at Scottrade Center, taking advantage of a final stretch in which the team hosted seven of its last eight games. They won six of those, with the only blemish a 2-0 loss to the Blackhawks.
But the challenge against Chicago Saturday was different. The Blackhawks, having already clinched the Presidents’ Trophy, kept several of their regulars back in Chicago, including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith.
The ‘Hawks borrowed from their American Hockey League affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, dressing a lineup of eight rookies – three who were making their NHL debut, including goalie Carter Hutton.
That might have seemed like an unmistakable advantage for the Blues, but the scenario had the makings of a trap game, and despite falling behind early on, the IceHogs – rather the Blackhawks – were controlling the tempo temporarily.
But the Blues had mentioned earlier in the day that if they stuck to their game, they would eventually push the young ‘Hawks out of the competition, and the club did that with three unanswered goals.
Patrik Berglund opened the scoring with his 17th goal of the season, finishing one behind Chris Stewart for the Blues’ top spot in that department this year. The goal, which was assisted by Andy McDonald and Vladimir Tarasenko, came on a delayed penalty, giving the club a 1-0 lead just 4:33 into the game.
Late in the first period, Schwartz notched the first of his two goals Saturday, putting a rebound past Hutton for a 2-0 advantage. They were goal Nos. 6-7 this season for the rookie.
“Whether had some guys in or not, they’re going to work hard,” Schwartz said. “We wanted to make sure we stuck to our game plan and do the things that make us successful.”
The Blues had several chances to extend their lead, but former Blue Jamal Mayers, perhaps making his final appearance in St. Louis, prevented a goal and also McDonald hit a post.
But with 11:21 left in the second period, Schwartz poked in his second goal of the night for a 3-0 lead. Schwartz finished off a play at the net, after taking a pass from Backes, who with his second assist piled up point No. 300.
When the horn sounded, the Blues waved their sticks at the crowd of 19,841 – the 10th sellout of the season – many of whom will be back next week as the club opens up the postseason at home.
“We earned this,” Hitchcock said. “We fought hard to get back in this.”