Halfway through the season – heck, as late as a month ago – the St. Louis Blues were the team you wanted to avoid in the playoffs. You wanted to avoid them for as long as possible.
They were good and getting better, with the addition of a big-name goaltender at the trade deadline. They were a big team that killed opponents physically and made them like it. They hurt teams on the scoreboard and made it worse.
Then, something happened. A lot of things happened, some of it injury-related, some of it a goalie on roller skates. Whatever, the Blues are now the team you’d send a limo for, and the Blackhawks get them in the first round of the playoffs.
If it’s any consolation for all the misery the Cardinals have dealt out over the years, Cubs fans, the Blues are paying it back by looking every bit like your baseball team when it matters most, having lost their last six games to give the Central Division to the Avalanche.
The Blues had the top seed in the conference seemingly locked up – the division title, at least – but then they choked as if Dusty Baker were making line changes.
Good. If the NHL is going to move the dreaded Red Wings out of the conference, then at least the dastardly Blues are around for target practice.
Unlike the dreaded Wings, the Blues have never won. Also unlike the dreaded Wings, the Blues have issues with poise. In other words, they can go stupid justlikethat.
These aren’t the idiots who were coached by Davis Payne. That team played stupid for the sake of playing stupid.
These Blues play with an edge, and easily could go over the edge, especially in the white-hot intensity of the postseason, when discipline is one of the four major food groups.
Whatever the mental and emotional issues, the Blues also look physically hurt worse than the Hawks, missing half of their top 12 forwards to start the weekend.
The Hawks still have to see how Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will return, but they are still Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and the Blues players aren’t.
In goal, Corey Crawford just won a Stanley Cup, while Ryan Miller barely won anything down the stretch.
Miller rolled after the trade and looked like he was going to be the difference everyone said he would be. His 7-0-1 start backed up the belief he was going to win the Blues their first Cup, a futility streak approaching half of where the Cubs stand.
But now, pffft.
Starting with the game where the Hawks chased him in the second period, Miller has lost eight of 11 heading into the playoffs. He had given up four goals in almost half of those games. Excluding an empty-net goal, he has allowed fewer than three goals only three times in that 11-game stretch that covers almost the last month of the season.
Hockey’s playoffs certainly can turn quickly. That’s the randomness of the sport. Miller could suddenly revert to the guy the Blues believed they were getting. But of late, with a goals-against average pushing 3.0 and a save percentage under .900, Miller has looked like a first-round out.
Not only have the Hawks beaten Miller, they recently beat backup goalie Brian Elliott. What else you got?
Ken Hitchcock has the past, that’s what. The past is what he was reduced to citing, apparently. When the Hawks smothered the Blues a couple Sundays ago, Hitchcock was asked about the Hawks’ winning two in a row over the crumbling Blues, to which the coach of the crumbling Blues could answer only that people should look at the season series.
Lame answer, Hitch. Lame and desperate. The games the Blues won came when the Blues could play hockey. They stopped doing that once the Hawks beat Miller. The Blues have been shut out five times in the last 14 games, including back-to-back to end the season.
It’s not the best team that wins a playoff series or the Stanley Cup, it’s the team that’s playing the best, and as wonky as the Hawks have played down the stretch, with and without their captain and another great offensive star, they are playing better than the Blues. Geez, everybody is.
The Blues, it would appear, are pulling off the magic act of simultaneously gripping both their sticks and their throats too tightly at the wrong time. Which makes it the right time for the Hawks to face them.