The pressure falls on St. Louis after it couldn’t win at home to close out Dallas. Who should start in net in Game 7? And is Ken Hitchcock safe?
It didn’t feel like the St. Blues lost Game 6 at home to the Dallas Stars. Especially if you missed the first period, when the Stars exploded for three goals. After falling behind 3-0, St. Louis outshot Dallas 37-14. The last 40 minutes looked like a Blues power play. They scored twice and posted a 5-on-5 Corsi edge of 75-25.
But guess what? The Blues still lost. They couldn’t find the tying goal, not even when Jaden Schwartz got a 10-bell chance in the dying moments, which Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen turned away with an epic pad save. St. Louis looked like the better team for much of Game 6, but it wasn’t enough. Now the Blues head back to Dallas for Game 7 with the possibility of Stars sniper Tyler Seguin returning from his Achilles injury.
And two questions linger.
1. Who should start in goal for St. Louis in Game 7: Brian Elliott or Jake Allen?
It feels grimy even to ask the question. Elliott deserves better. He was arguably the league’s most dominant goalie after the all-star break and, despite entering the 2016 post-season with an .897 playoff save percentage, he rose to the occasion to post a .932 mark in 12 starts this spring leading up to Game 6. Then the collapse happened. Elliott looked shaky from the opening faceoff, fighting the puck before losing to it by TKO. Coach Ken Hitchcock hooked Elliott before the first period was up.
The Blues were a team possessed after Elliott’s dismissal. Replacement Jake Allen wasn’t very busy the rest of the game, so it’s not like he buoyed the momentum, but the goalie swap seemed to send a message. Allen also isn’t your typical backup goaltender. He’s one of the game’s best young goalies. He spent a good chunk of this season as St. Louis’ 1A to Elliott’s 1B before Elliott got the main seat down the stretch. Allen started all six of St. Louis’ post-season games last year. He’s supposed to be the team’s goalie of the future.
So does that mean Allen should start Game 7? No. It shouldn’t. Elliott has been so good in the New Year that he’s earned Hitchcock’s trust. Seeing as Elliott is a human being and not a robot, it was only a matter of time before he had a stinker of a game. It happens. Not going back to him for Game 7 would send a bad message – ironically, even Allen could be affected. If one bad period dooms Elliott, Allen would enter Game 7 knowing his leash is extremely short, which wouldn’t inspire confidence. So the guess here is Hitchcock does the right thing and trusts the goalie he anointed as the de facto starter for the playoffs: Elliott.
2. Is Ken Hitchcock’s job still on the line after all?
St. Louis slayed its minotaur in the first round, beating the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7. The Blues and coach Hitchcock finally advanced to Round 2 after three straight years of first-round exits.
Hitchcock’s job was undoubtedly on the line in that first Game 7. Four straight first-round defeats, not to mention his expiring one-year contract extension, would’ve sealed his fate. But if the Blues only advance one more round against a Stars team missing its second-best player for at least six of the seven games…Hitch will have won a two playoff series in five years. It’s fair to wonder if the problem plaguing him – the inability to get a perpetually dominant Blues team deep in the playoffs – still exists should St. Louis drop this second Game 7.
That’s not to say he necessarily should lose his job in the event of a Blues loss. If we play along with the narrative that Hitchcock must take this team further in the post-season to preserve his employment, however, he may have to win Game 7 Wednesday and reach Round 3.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin