CHICAGO | All the talk about the St. Louis Blues’ physicality, or chippiness toward the Blackhawks, or St. Louis goalie Ryan Miller regaining his mojo or the Blues’ overall late-season collapse means nothing if the Hawks don’t play up to coach Joel Quenneville’s defensive standard.
Quenneville always talks about keeping the game simple. That means attending to all defensive fundamentals, which turns into scoring chances, which in turn means eking out tight victories in the adrenalin-drenched NHL playoffs that begin tonight in St. Louis.
The Hawks had only one real defensive letdown in five regular-season games against the Blues, a 6-5 shootout loss just before New Year’s Eve. Lately, the Hawks tightened things up in two wins at the United Center, verbally frustrating Blues coach Ken Hitchcock when asked if the victors had regained prime form against them.
If the Hawks bottle the defensive effort of the two recent wins, the Blues — who are still trying to recover a bevy of injured players — will perform off-key on the ice.
“We had a couple of tough games in their building, where it looked like we were getting something out of the games,” Quenneville said. Tough, frustrating losses both nights. But at the same time, we did a lot of good things in those games ... a big Game 1 and let’s be excited.”
Forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews know they have to round into defensive form quickly tonight after weeks-long absences due to injury and/or mandated rest from Quenneville.
“That’s one of the reasons we did so well last year in the playoffs, we had such a good defensive team,” said Kane. “I think we led the league in goals-against last year. That goes to show how important that stat is when you win a Stanley Cup. We’ll try to play a good team defense again.
“Especially when you’re back in the lineup. You want to make sure you’re responsible defensively and playing the right way, the way the team wants you to play.”
Quenneville has stressed “simplicity” for months and he’s not stopping now.
“I liked how we played in those games,” he said of the two straight wins over the Blues. “Simplicity probably is the best thing that got the rewards. We keep it simple, keeps us in the game. We don’t anticipate a lot of scoring chances either way. You got to work for everything we get. The simpler we play, the more committed to playing that type of game, can play in our favor.
“We get ourselves a little bit in trouble when we try to do a little bit too much. Whether it’s too pretty or one more play … (straightforward) is the best way. We check well. We get some opportunities off that. That check-first mentality can enhance our game.”
Fans in Scottrade Arena, burned by the Blues’ sharp slump late in the regular season, will be howling for their heroes to pluck the Hawks without mercy. Last year, Blues management concocted a plan to keep Hawks fans out of the building by requiring any Chicago games be purchased as part of a season-ticket plans. But the Hawks loyalists will still find their way in to show off their red sweaters.
The geographic rivalry adds to the entertainment.
“We know it’s going to exciting for both cities to be involved in the matchup,” Kane said. “It seems like it’s been a rivalry for a long time. But that should only amp it up.”
Even with some Chicago cheers, the Hawks haven’t exactly dominated at Scottrade Arena. And losing home-ice advantage has not been common in their two successful Stanley Cup runs since 2010.
“They’re definitely a tougher team to play in their own building,” said Toews. “That goes for anybody, really. It’s one of those disadvantages or adversities that we’ll have to overcome and just focus on to find a way to win in St. Louis.”
The pressure is really on the Blues in the wake of their fast fade. A sample of the media scrutiny came Wednesday from columnist Bernie Miklasz in StLToday.com:
“Unless the Blues can put more pucks on the net, unless they can rediscover their scoring touch, and unless goaltender Ryan Miller can steal a game or two instead of looking like a flounder flopping around on a pier – well, the Blues could hit the Blackhawks harder than Mike Tyson hit Michael Spinks in Atlantic City and it won't mean a damn thing.”
Somehow, the Hawks have to stay above the fray. Old-hand Quenneville doesn’t think anything but the goal he has achieved twice in Chicago.
“Expectations that year (2010) and this year are kind of comparable,” he said. “Everybody likes our team. Everybody believes that we can win a championship. But I don’t feel the weight of the world that hey, we have to win, we have to win, we have to win. We’re all excited about the challenge."