The St. Louis Blues are in familiar territory right now with a series lead against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. But this is a case where familiarity doesn’t bring any comfort. The Blues’ recent history has been that of playoff torture.
It starts in 2013, when St. Louis jumped out to a 2-0 series lead in the first round against Los Angeles, then the defending Cup winner. The Blues lost four straight. One year later St. Louis played Chicago. Again they won the first two, and again they lost the next four. Last season, the Blues got an easier draw against the Minnesota Wild. Didn’t matter. St. Louis still lost in six.
For all the success of the city’s baseball team, hockey seems to be where St. Louis fans pay the price. The Blues just keep raising hopes and letting them down.
You can even say that it’s in the franchise DNA. The Blues came into existence in 1968 and promptly made the Stanley Cup Finals each of their first three years. You would think that great things were on the horizon. But they lost the Finals each year and haven’t been back since. They haven’t reached the conference finals since 1986.
Ken Hitchcock took over what was a struggling franchise early in 2011-12 season. St. Louis had missed the postseason in five of the previous six years and not actually won a playoff series since 2002. Hitchcock got the team back to the dance, they won the first round and were in good position to go further. Then the Kings, on a Cinderella run out of the 8-seed, steamrollered the Blues in four straight and St. Louis has yet to make it back to the second round.
This can’t overshadow that Hitchcock has turned St. Louis into a steady, disciplined hockey team that plays good defense. They’ve just had the misfortune to draw either Chicago or Los Angeles in four of his five postseason trips. But the draw is what it is, and with a 3-2 series lead, the time is now for the Blues to advance.
St. Louis has earned this series lead with the formula that’s served them well all year. They were excellent all year on both sides of the power play. In this series, the Blues have outscored the Blackhawks 10-3 with the man advantage. St. Louis doesn’t have a ton of offensive talent, but they do have Vladimir Tarasenko. In this series, Tarasenko is attacking the net consistently, taking 21 shots over five games, with three goals and two assists.
But above all, what St. Louis has is goaltending. Brian Elliot led the NHL in save percentage this season and he’s saving this time thus far in the Chicago series. Over five games, the Blackhawks have outshot the Blues 187-151. Given the superiority of Chicago’s offensive talent to begin with, that should have been enough to have the Blackhawks either advancing or in firm command. It’s because of Elliot that St. Louis is the team on the brink of advancing.
St. Louis fans know all too well though, that being on the brink of advancing is quite different from doing it and that the fourth win against a team like Chicago is the hardest to come by. The Blues had a chance at home in Game 5 before losing in overtime. It’s enough to make a St. Louis fan just a little bit more nervous. Can they final close it out Saturday night in the United Center or Monday back at home? Elliot carries a heavy burden.