By beating the Blackhawks in their three previous meetings this season and beginning to run away with the Central in recent weeks -- a lot like the Blackhawks did last season -- the Blues might just have been able to establish some doubt in the Blackhawks’ minds about who is favorite to win this year’s Stanley Cup.
On Wednesday, however, the Blackhawks put together one of their most complete efforts of the season and left no doubt about who was the better team.
The Blackhawks rolled to a 4-0 win at the United Center, handing the Blues their first regulation loss within the division this season -- and possibly even putting a crack in the Blues’ confidence.
“It was definitely big to get two points against them,” said Blackhawks forward Ben Smith, who scored a goal. “Just know in our heads that we can compete with that team. They’ve been on top of the league now for a month or two. It was a big win for us, especially [since] we’ve been up and down a bit here the last month or two. It’s time for us to make our push. Hopefully this is the start of it.”
The Blackhawks were able to knock off the Blues for the first time this season by limiting their quality chances on Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford and creating their own disturbance around Blues goaltender Ryan Miller.
The Blackhawks limited the Blues to 23 shots on goals and no more than nine in a single period. Alexander Steen, who has a team-leading 30 goals for the Blues, was held without a shot on net.
“We played really solid,” said Crawford, who recorded his second shutout of the season. “We didn’t give them too many opportunities where they were alone in the slot for a good chance to shoot it on net. I don’t think maybe once where they had a lot of time in the slot. A lot of their chances were point shots with maybe a tip opportunity or rebound, but our guys were great with clearing them.”
At the other end, the Blackhawks made life difficult for Miller, which was something he hadn’t experienced much of since joining the Blues at the trade deadline. Miller had stopped 180 of 193 shots and had a 7-0-1 record with the Blues prior to Wednesday.
The Blackhawks put an emphasis on getting bodies around the net and taking away Miller’s vision. That plan worked to perfection, especially on the first two goals. Duncan Keith nailed in a slap shot past Miller from the point with Andrew Shaw in front of the net, and Shaw later tipped in a Nick Leddy shot. The Blackhawks’ two other goals also were around the net.
“He’s a great goaltender,” Keith said. “Most of the time if he sees the puck, he’s going to stop it. So those are the type of goals we need where it’s shots with screens and deflections and rebound goals and guys going to the net, and I think we had all of that tonight.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock thought his team could learn a lesson from the Blackhawks.
“They're the Stanley Cup champions for a reason,” Hitchcock said. “They know when to turn the temperature up. It's our responsibility. No matter what happens in the regular season, everybody in the West, if you're going to give them a go, you're going to have to dial it up. They're getting ready. And it's up to us to get ready.
“That's the task. They dialed it up. We didn't play that well, but this is March. This isn't December and January -- the middle of the season. They're cranking it up to another level. They competed hard on every puck from start to finish. We had control early and they took it from us. Good on them.”
The Blackhawks haven’t been able to locate a level of consistency since Jan. 1. They’ve gone 12-8-8 in 2014. They also have gone 5-4-1 since the Olympic break.
Keith was hopeful a win like Wednesday’s would get them headed in a better direction with the season winding down.
“We know what we have in the room here,” Keith said. “We knew it was a big game against us a tough team that’s played great all year. We hadn’t beaten these guys all year. I think we wanted to come out and just play a good solid hockey game from start to finish. I thought we did that. I think it’s something we can build off for sure.