Hawks' stars come through in Game 3

— -- CHICAGO -- Captain Jonathan Toews struck first and goaltender Corey Crawford closed it out late.

If the Chicago Blackhawks had scored a power-play goal somewhere in between, you could say that this is exactly how you draw up a must-win playoff game.

But after two wild overtime games, both lost in "brutal" fashion -- coach Joel Quennville's word, not mine -- Toews' goal just 4 minutes, 10 seconds into Monday's Game 3 was enough in a 2-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues in the Blackhawks' home playoff opener.

Have you ever heard 22,112 people exhale at once?

It happened twice Monday.

Once when Toews scored on a knuckler that traveled through Ryan Miller's 5-hole, and then again when Marcus Kruger knocked in an empty-netter with about 20 seconds left to vanquish the specter of overtime.

Despite a strong third period, the Blues couldn't recapture their late magic from the first two games. That's what the playoffs are all about, right? Magic. Those ephemeral bursts of "what the heck just happened?"

The first-round series stands at 2-1 now, with the fourth game coming Wednesday night at the United Center. Is there a local defibrillator company looking to sponsor the third period?

Quenneville admitted it was tough coming home with a two-game deficit, and that the loss of defenseman Brent Seabrook to a three-game suspension for crushing David Backes along the boards Saturday didn't help.

With audio and video proof that someone on the Blackhawks -- cough, Duncan Keith, cough -- taunted Backes as he struggled to collect himself after the hit making the rounds, Chicago had to change the narrative quickly. It did, with a clean win. Beside the usual tomfoolery, there were no ugly moments.

Well, ESPN Chicago columnist Michael Wilbon's "shoot the puck" performance aside, that is.

Just kidding, Mike.

This was, of course, a must-win game for the Blackhawks. You generally try to avoid going down 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series. And the win wasn't perfect. The power play went 0-for-4, and the Blues had plenty of chances in the third period. But there are no style points in the playoffs.

"Another hard game, another tight game," said Crawford, who made 34 saves. "They came hard again. Our D played unreal."

When the Blackhawks went down 2-0, Crawford took responsibility for those late-third-period and crucial overtime goals. That was well received in the dressing room.

But Toews felt a sense of responsibility to get the Blackhawks back in this series after two heartbreaking losses. Five of the team's six goals in the first two games were scored by defensemen.

"I once said I don't feel pressure to score," he said. "I think if I don't on a given night, there's a lot of good things I can do. But I feel like that's one of the responsibilities I have as a player."

The goal was Toews' first of the playoffs and his first since March 21. He missed the Blackhawks' final six regular-season games with an upper-body injury.

It was his 21st playoff goal in 78 career games. Maybe in a month or so, we'll look back it at as a truly pivotal one.

"We definitely wanted to get the lead, but I didn't necessarily think it was going to be the only one scored all night until the empty-netter," Toews said.

Quenneville reunited Toews, Patrick Kane and Bryan Bickell on the top line, and it paid immediate dividends. Beside the goal, there was some nifty passing that put pressure on Miller.

"We've played together so much over the years, whether we're together or not during the whole season, we can go out there and just play hockey," Toews said. "We know each others' games really well. I think a big reason we had success last year is we had Bicks out there, creating a lot of space and he made some great plays. If we can get the puck to him, he's got a big shot, too. There's a lot of good things going there."

Quenneville inserted that line before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals last spring. It answered with five points in that game, five points the next game and three in the clincher.

In a perfect world, you spread out Kane and Toews to balance the lines. But hey, smoke 'em if you got 'em.

"Two special players," Quenneville said. "They feed off each other, anticipating offensively, 'see plays, make plays.' They're a threat off the rush, in the zone. They're two pretty amazing players."

Quenneville said he tries to "stay away from the goalies," but he met with Crawford on Sunday, something he characterized as "basically commending him, accepting that responsibility" to take blame for the first two losses.

Goaltenders take a lot of heat, especially in the postseason, where reputations are cemented. But the fans chanted Crawford's name Monday.

"I've seen him play some really great games before where the crowd is chanting his name," Toews said. "It's something he'll remember. I think for anyone out there on the ice, it's amazing when a player has that effect on his team and everyone on the building."

Playoff hockey returned to Chicago for the first time since June. Now it's up to the Blackhawks to keep it here.