The Chicago Blackhawks have their opportunity. After falling behind the St. Louis Blues, 3-1, in the first-round series, Chicago has forced a deciding Game 7 on Monday night at Scottrade Center. The winner will advance to the Western Conference Semifinals for a matchup against the Dallas Stars, who finished off their series against the Minnesota Wild on Sunday.
The Hawks have had their back against the wall for much of this series after losing Games 3 and 4 at home. The team was on the brink of a disaster it couldn't turn around after getting behind, 3-1, early in Game 6. Instead, Chicago rallied with five answered goals during the final two periods of the game to stun the Blues and extend the series for a couple more days.
Afterwards, coach Ken Hitchcock more or less said the Blues have the Hawks right where they want them with a chance to win at home, calling Game 7 a "best-case scenario." Now, I would've assumed finishing off Chicago in Game 5 and avoiding all this stress would be preferable, but hey, you do you.
The game is especially important for St. Louis and Hitchcock. If the Blues blow this series after all their past playoff failures, an offseason overhaul seems highly likely. Hitchcock might be effectively coaching for his job Monday night. While this is a must-win game for both teams, obviously, the Hawks' long-term strategy doesn't hinge quite as much on this result. Chicago will keep doing its thing even if it gets knocked out in the first round. The Blues feel on the brink of blowing up their roster around Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Colton Parayko.
Key Question: What's up with Hitch and Tarasenko?
This might be the defining narrative of this series. Tarasenko, the Blues' best player, hasn't seen a ton of ice time over the past couple games with a chance to put away the Hawks. In a double overtime Game 6, he played about 21 minutes. Several other Blues forwards played significantly more, and cameras caught Tarasenko giving Hitchcock the cold shoulder before the two headed to the locker room during an intermission.
St. Louis has been a different team this season partially because of the dynamic offensive skill and finishing ability that Taranseko possesses. He's currently tied for the team lead with six points during the round even though he's just sixth among forwards on the team in ice time. Tarasenko has 24 shots on goal in this series, while no other Blue has more than 15.
Great teams lean HARDER on their best players when they need them most, yet Hitchcock doesn't seem to want to do that with Tarasenko. It's a stark contrast to the way that Joel Quenneville will aggressively start double-shifting Patrick Kane if he thinks his team needs a boost. The difference in the way the two teams handle their superstar forwards could end up being one of the deciding factors in this series.
The Hawks have consistently had a tough time defending Tarasenko. Duncan Keith is really the only defenseman on the Hawks who has regularly been able to push Taranseko off the puck and away from dangerous shooting locations. He's so good at finding space, though, that it usually seems inevitable that he'll get his chances. That's why it seems odd that the Blues wouldn't use him more liberally in trying to finish off this series. We'll see if costs them Monday night.
How to watch Hawks vs. Blues Game 7
When: 7:30 p.m. CT
Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis
TV: NBCSN, CSN Chicago (U.S.) | CBC, TVA Sports (Canada)
Stream: NNBC Sports Live Extra