By Brad Lee
The diehard Blues fans who have suffered through the last three seasons of disappointing, grueling, heartbreaking hockey were rewarded with a big damn party a little after 10 o'clock Saturday night at the Scottrade Center.
Rookie TJ Oshie announced his presence with authority by assisting on a crucial goal in the third period before scoring the game-winner in the shootout in a 4-3 win against the Chicago Blackhawks. It was an important milestone for Oshie and for this franchise as well as the resurgence of the Blues-Hawks rivalry.
The Blues were down 3-1 just three minutes into the third period thanks to Patrick Kane's second goal and third point of the night. Things looked bleak. And then six and a half minutes later Oshie helped turn the tide. Keith Tkachuk carried the puck across the blue line and chipped it over to David Perron along the right boards.
Perron drew two defenders toward him and Old Man Tkachuk headed toward the net. Perron saw the defenders coming and quickly gave the puck to Oshie in the near corner. Using the eyes apparently in the back of his head, Oshie saw the streaking Tkachuk. The puck was delivered at the right place and the right time and Big Walt one-timed it into the net in one smooth motion. It was all about awareness, poise and timing. I'm tingly just thinking about it.
The game was sent to overtime thanks to Andy McDonald in the final minute of regulation. The Blues' net was empty, the faceoff was to the right of the Chicago net. The Blues won the faceoff before winger Paul Kariya, knowing that time was trickling away, flung the puck towards the goal. It hit a Blackhawk's leg and skidded over to Andy McDonald. He took one stride into an open pocket on the ice and fired a shot that someone found its way through traffic, Nikolai Khabibulin's pads and into the net.
Let's skip ahead to the end of the shootout. The Blues and Blackhawks scored two apiece sending it to a fourth round. Coach Andy Murray tabbed the rookie for his first career shootout attempt. Good choice, Mr. Willem Dafoe lookalike. Oshie streaked in. He put on a simple move that involved a shoulder fake, a lean and raising his back skate as if firing a shot. Khabibulin committed early and Oshie basically skated the puck into the nearly vacated net. A big save by Emmanuel Legace set off a celebration that rocked the Scottrade Center, in the stands and on the bench before spilling out onto the ice.
Sure the win was important, the second thrilling come-from-behind victory in less than a week and a mean uppercut on the chin of division foe Chicago. But it was also a validation of the path this franchise has chosen. The only notable additions to this Blues roster from a season ago are an 18-year-old defenseman straight from juniors (Alex Pietrangelo), a tall lanky 20-year-old center from Sweden playing his first season in North America (Patrik Berglund) and a 21-year-old little ball of hate that plays like a human pinball with a nose for the net and good ice awareness (Oshie).
There are two extremes on this squad: the elder statesmen in Tkachuk, Legace, Kariya and McDonald and the kids with very few guys falling in between. As Murray has said in countless interviews since training camp opened last month, the Blues will need their veterans to play well to win. To make the playoffs, the young players will have to mature quickly. And who could have guessed, that's what's happened so far four games into the season.
Oshie is a huge piece of this team's future. He's a tireless worker, plays the body hard, was a leader in college and has offensive skill to boot. Some who watched him mature at North Dakota said he has the makeup of a future NHL captain in the vein of Brian Sutter. Fans can relate to his work ethic and how he plays the game. We've been hearing about him since he was taken in the first round of the 2006 draft. He's the Blues' version of the Cardinals' Colby Rasmus except he's actually with his major league team. And it's exciting to see him on the big stage delivering in such a key, pressure-packed situation. That shootout attempt, where a miss could mean the game, was a test by Murray. He might say he had all the faith in the world the kid would make it. But you have to believe Murray mainly wanted to see how Oshie would respond. And respond he did.
These games against the Blackhawks pit Oshie against one of his best friends from college, former linemate Jonathan Toews, the Hawks' captain. If anyone wants to beat Chicago, it's Oshie. And now that former Blues coach Joel Quenneville is behind the Hawks' bench, the matchup is even spicier now.
The Blues have five more home games before leaving town for a game. The next opponent is the hated/dreaded/reviled Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night. Come back tomorrow and get your hate on before the red menace descends on St. Louis.