Duncan Keith was everywhere, so uncannily ubiquitous it seemed as though he had a stunt man double, like they do in Hollywood.
“Best game I’ve ever seen him play,” offered Head Coach Joel Quenneville.
Then there was Jonathan Toews, whose deft maneuver on a power play early in the third period snapped a deadlock and served as a harbinger, a storm warning. He received The Belt from teammates, a shiny momento he can’t keep. But there might be a statue in his future.
And there was Patrick Sharp, scoreless for the tournament, burrowing forth while being mugged by Kevin Shattenkirk. A penalty shot pending, Sharp nudged the puck toward the net with all the horsepower of a medicine ball. But it escaped goalie Ryan Miller, who was zigging instead of zagging, and that finally broke the spirit of a worthy foe.
Yet the constant in the Blackhawks’ 5-1 elimination of the St. Louis Blues Sunday at the United Center sat in his stall, speaking with an exasperated monotone. It was Corey Crawford, the Rodney Dangerfield of National Hockey League goalkeepers, who again proved to be a bastion of stability when the going got so tough that an expectant SRO crowd of 22,144 grew fidgety.
During a second period when only half the rink seemed in bounds, St. Louis outshot the Blackhawks, 17-3, gaining confidence with every minute. Even when the Blues weren’t on the power play, they appeared to have an extra skater. But Crawford was impregnable, and he is why the defending Stanley Cup champions can sleep in for a couple days instead of facing a Game 7 on the road, a test the Blackhawks haven’t aced since 1965.
“He never gets the credit he deserves,” praised Toews. That’s all you need to know about how lodge brothers feel about Crawford, who scolded himself for two agonizing sudden death losses at the Scottrade Center before he steadied. The Blackhawks ran the table, and not for the first time during his playoff career, Crawford outdueled a more decorated counterpart.
“Never think about that,” rasped Crawford. “This is a team game. Whatever happens, we still do what we do.”
The Blackhawks did what neither side had done in a tenacious preliminary series that bore all the trappings of a Stanley Cup Final, except it’s still only April. After Toews and Sharp brought the lead to 3-1, the Blackhawks piled it on with goals from Andrew Shaw and Keith to rout the Blues, 4 games to 2, although Captain Serious aptly portrayed this tug-of-war as a best-of-nine.
Brent Seabrook, on parole, returned while Sheldon Brookbank, who filled in admirably, did not dress. Seabrook assisted on Bryan Bickell’s redirect that opened the scoring, and logged a plus-3 as did defense partner Keith, who assisted thrice. As aforementioned, only beer vendors saw more action. Joakim Nordstrom replaced Kris Versteeg. Otherwise, the only difference in Game 6 was that one of these two rivals had an opportunity to exhale.
On a Sunday of superlatives — “our best period of the year,” volunteered Coach Q about the explosive third — the Blackhawks continued to stifle the St. Louis power play (2-for-29 in the series), despite some foul trouble. Marcus Kruger, a specialist at killing penalties, created two in the first period. Marian Hossa took a double minor during the anxious second. Midway in that session, the Blues were outgunning the Blackhawks 20 to 10 to no avail.
When Doug Armstrong, the St. Louis general manager, swung a deal to free Miller from the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 28, the NHL got the message. The Blues, then challenging to claim the Presidents’ Trophy for best overall record, were all in on a quest for the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Now, Miller is an unrestricted free agent and the Blues will wear a millstone all summer. Their playoff exit, on paper at least, is a carbon copy of last spring’s when they began with two victories against the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, then succumbed in four straight.
But the Blues did not fold in this series of stark mood and momentum swings. They were simply bent by a Blackhawks’ team with superior skill, composure and depth. The theory that Chicago cannot handle a physical, punishing adversary took another beating. Soft hands around the blue paint does not equate to soft tendencies in the corners. Thus, the missive imparted by the Blackhawks stands: whatever your style, to dethrone them, you must defeat them four times within two weeks. There are easier ways to make a living in professional sports.
Also, there are smoother paths to the next parade route than revving your postseason engines against the Blues. This series was as enervating as last year’s Final against Boston, and similar to an epic 1971 preamble that went the distance against the New York Rangers.
The Blackhawks prevailed then, as they did Sunday. But it was laborious. So don’t call them Monday or Tuesday. They’ll call you.
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