Brian Elliott (Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)
St. Louis Blues netminder Brian Elliot had three shutouts in his final eight games of the regular season, and kicked off the post-season with a 35-save blanking of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. David Backes netted the overtime-winner thanks to a friendly bounce off of Chicago’s Trevor van Riemsdyk.
Here’s how close the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks were this season: in a five-game season series, the Blues edged out the Blackhawks 3-2 and Chicago outscored St. Louis 14-13. If there is one series that could be decided on a single bounce here or a rolling puck there, it might be the battle between the Blues and Blackhawks, and St. Louis earned the Game 1 victory by having the first bounce go in their favor.
The fortuitous moment came nine minutes into the first overtime game of the post-season, when a pass by captain David Backes ricocheted off the skate of Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and squeaked through the five-hole of goaltender Corey Crawford as the Blues emerged with the 1-0 victory. And in a series that’s likely to be as tight as the one between Chicago and St. Louis, goals like Backes’ are likely to be the difference all series long.
And while goaltending was the big story in Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, no netminder shone quite as bright as St. Louis’ Brian Elliott on the post-season’s opening night. Without Elliott, the Blues may not have had the time to wait for their bounce to come.
Elliott faced 35 shots Wednesday and turned aside each and every puck that came his way. That included a Jonathan Toews breakaway, a Toews and Patrick Kane 2-on-1 and almost innumerable side-of-the-net stuff plays by the Blackhawks. Elliott looked confident during each of Chicago’s five power play attempts, and his play to challenge Artemi Panarin at the side of the net — during what was undoubtedly one of the more heart-stopping moments for Blues fans — helped thwart a Blackhawks attack.
All of this is made more impressive by the fact that Elliott, who had a league-best .930 save percentage, an impressive 2.07 goals-against and four shutouts, wasn’t even named the starter until Monday. Considering Elliott’s play leading up to the post-season, it seemed he was likely to get the call, but goaltending partner Jake Allen returned ahead of Game 1 and raised the question. And even though it took until two days before Game 1, there’s no doubt coach Ken made the right choice in giving the goaltender they call ‘Moose’ the nod.
The win was Elliott’s first career playoff shutout and only his seventh post-season victory. Not only that, but Elliott picked up his win in a game where Crawford was every bit his equal. In past years, these are the types of games the Blues might lose. That doesn’t mean things don’t need to be different for St. Louis in Game 2, though.
One thing that will certainly need to improve for the Blues is their attack. It was shut down throughout the contest and won’t have many more opportunities when Chicago’s all-star defenseman Duncan Keith returns from suspension in time for Friday’s outing. Keith’s presence is sure to impact the Blues’ ability to create sustained pressure, and that’s something they had trouble with in Game 1. St. Louis came into the series with the favorable possession numbers, but Chicago boasted a shot attempts for percentage of 53.1 in Game 1.
But, at least for tonight, the Blues should enjoy their Game 1 victory. It was only the first game of what has the makings of a long series, but it was an important win for the Blues. This is the exact type of win Hitchcock’s club needed to start their playoffs and can give St. Louis confidence they can snap their three-year streak of being knocked out of the post-season in the opening round. They’ll have the chance to get one step closer to Round Two on Friday night.