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Another gut-check for the Blues, another determined defending champion standing in the way of the Stanley Cup

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports
St. Louis Blues v Chicago Blackhawks - Game Three
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CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 21: Michal Handzus #26 of the Chicago Blackhawks grabs Steve Ott #29 of the St. Louis Blues around the neck during a stop in play at the Blackhawk net in Game Three of the First Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on April 21, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Blues 2-0. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

CHICAGO — This is deja vu for the St. Louis Blues. Just like last year, they took a 2-0 lead at home in a first-round series with the defending Stanley Cup champions – Alex Steen scoring the overtime winner in Game 1, Barret Jackman scoring the dramatic winner in Game 2. Just like last year, they played well on the road in Game 3 but lost, anyway.

Last year, they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games. What now against the Chicago Blackhawks? Game 4 is Wednesday night. Will the Blues crumble again and fail to validate themselves as contenders, or will they take a step forward and show this organization has grown?

“When you’re knocking off a defending champion, they’re not a defending champion because they have skill,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “It’s because they’ve got resolve. You’re trying to beat their resolve. You’re not trying to beat their skill. Everybody’s got skill. And it is one hell of a challenge.”

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Hitchcock has been talking about resolve for a long time now, and this challenge goes back to when he was hired – and why he was hired. After the Blues started 6-7-0 in 2011-12, general manager Doug Armstrong brought in Hitchcock. He felt the pieces were in place. He knew Hitchcock had won a Cup and seen it all. He said: “It’s up to our players now to respond.”

They responded. The Blues finished 49-22-11, second in the West. Hitchcock won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year. Armstrong won the NHL’s General Manager of the Year Award. But it was only a step. It was only their second playoff appearance in seven seasons. They were swept by the Kings in the second round.

The Kings went on to win the Cup, so the Blues felt they had learned what it takes to win in the playoffs. They talked a lot about how the Kings were more determined and desperate, willing to go a little bit further in every area of the ice. Hitchcock and captain David Backes had lunch that summer to “scheme on how we’re going to get there,” as Backes once put it.

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The Blues had a chance to get there last year when they met the Kings in the first round, and they took that 2-0 series lead. It’s not like they unraveled right away. It’s not like they just played well in Game 3 and lost, either. They played well in Game 4, too. The problem was that they weren’t prepared mentally to go unrewarded for the effort. They came home, dropped Game 5 and that was essentially that.

It was an overtime loss – all six games in that series were decided by one goal – but Hitchcock said he didn’t like the way the Blues reacted to what happened in L.A. and that’s the lesson he hopes they have learned.

“We were discouraged because we threw our ‘A’ game at them, and they beat us,” Hitchcock said. “That’s what teams are supposed to do. Now we’re in the same situation. We’re playing a team with lots of experience. There’s no panic on their side, and there won’t be, and we’re going to have to find a way to keep going. It’s not about whether you lose two in Chicago. It’s just about, ‘Keep going.’ ”

A month ago, when the Blues were the top team in the West, they were already steeling themselves for the playoffs. Before a dominating victory March 25 in Toronto, Hitchcock gave a quote he could have given this week. The Blues’ roster has evolved over the past three seasons, but the core is generally unchanged. “It’s the same personnel,” Hitchcock said. “The difference for us, it’s our resolve. We think our resolve is stronger.”

Backes, healthy then, said: “I’m not going to say there’s much good about losing in the playoffs, but there’s lessons to be learned. Having a long summer to sit there and go, ‘These guys are still playing in June, and we think we’re just as good a team as this team is,’ or seeing someone get handed that Stanley Cup that you play against time and time again during the season and saying, ‘We’re right with them, and they’re getting their ultimate dream,’ that’s something that really starts to fuel the fire inside you. And on top of that, we’ve got a little more seasoning. A little more growing up’s been done.”

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Now here are the Blues facing the Blackhawks, the Central Division rivals they play against time and time again, the team that was handed the Stanley Cup last June. The Blues have already shown resolve. After losing several players to injuries, six straight games down the stretch and the top spot in both the conference and division, they rallied from third-period deficits in back-to-back games – tying Games 1 and 2 late in regulation, winning them in overtime. After losing Backes to injury in Game 2, they carried the play much of Game 3. They just couldn’t finish in a shutout loss – a 1-0 game that ended 2-0 with an empty-netter.

The Blues have carried the play much of this series. In all situations, they rank first among the 16 playoff teams in unblocked shot attempts, according to extraskater.com. They have taken 57.2 percent of them in their games, meaning they have had the puck an awful lot. The Blackhawks, a top possession team in the regular season, rank dead last.

Is that because the Blues have had 30:30 of power-play time to the Blackhawks’ 25:48? Is that because the Blues have played from behind and the Blackhawks have sat back too much, especially in the third period? Sure. But look at what is considered the best measure of possession: when the teams are 5-on-5 and the score is close (tied in any period or within a goal in the first or second periods). The Blues have taken 53.9 percent of the unblocked shot attempts in the series, a strong number.

The Blues are in good shape, but this is why Hitchcock keeps telling them to keep going. It is why he keeps talking about resolve. If they win Game 4, they will have a 3-1 series lead – and the Blackhawks still won’t be out of it. The ’Hawks came back from a 3-1 series deficit last year against the Detroit Red Wings. If they lose Game 4, they will go home with the series tied, 2-2, and it will really be deja vu then. But what did they expect? By now they should know it is one hell of a challenge to knock off a defending champion.

“Sometimes you do it, and sometimes you don’t,” Hitchcock said. “But I can tell you one thing: Every time we play like we play, we get better as a team and better as an organization, and we get closer and closer. They know that we’re not going away easy. If we’re not good enough at the end of the day, that’s fine. But we’re not going away in any game. … There is a certain resolve that is required to win a championship, and that team over there has got it, and we’re trying to take it back from them.”

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