In some ways, a series between the Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues is a one that provides great theater. The most recent Stanley Cup champs have to go through their fiercest remaining divisional rival to begin their title defense.
The league wanted the new postseason format to create stronger divisional rivalries, but in this one, they already get a strong rivalry. There's not a lot of love lost between these two teams from numerous heated regular-season matchups over the recent years.
Many pundits and fans probably thought this could be a late-round meeting as recently as two weeks ago. That was before the Blues, a popular Stanley Cup pick earlier this season, went on a massive skid to end 2013-14, losing key players left and right from the forward corps to injury. Everything has seemingly gone south since as the Blues closed out the year on a six-game losing streak.
The Blackhawks have been headed in a similar direction. Having lost key forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to injury near the season's end, Chicago ended the year at a modest 5-5-0 in their last ten games, losing their last two games of the season. Both Kane and Toews are expected back for the Game 1 of this series, however.
So as much as this is a series any hockey fan would have licked their chops to see, neither team has had a great go of it recently coming into the postseason. That said, these recent skids are only that, recent, and therefore foremost in our minds. Both teams have played some excellent hockey for the majority of the season and that's what we should expect in this series.
St. Louis took the season series between the two teams, winning three of the five meetings. Chicago does have the better goal and shot differential in the series, however.
It's unfortunate one of these teams will be out after the first round.
STL Offense vs. CHI Defense
One of the complicated things about evaluating the Blues right now is the injury concerns. T.J. Oshie and David Backes are expected to be back in the lineup for Game 1, while the club will still be without Brenden Morrow, Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrik Berglund at least for Game 1. That puts a significant dent in their forward depth. Without that depth, there's more pressure on the top lines to produce. It also means Chicago can key their matchups on the Blues' big lines.
Though the Blues are a top-10 team when it comes to average goals per game at 2.92, they are 22nd in shots on goal per game at 29.3. Chicago, meanwhile is fourth in shots allowed per game at 27.2. Considering St. Louis is going to missing some forwards, for at least part of the series, that doesn't bode terribly well.
With Alexander Steen's hot goal-scoring cooled and both Oshie and Backes coming off of injury, there's a lot of concern there.
Chicago, meanwhile has a top four defense that matches up well with just about anybody. Duncan Keith is a likely Norris finalist, while Niklas Hjalmarsson has continued his maturation into one of the league's better shutdown defensemen drawing some of the toughest competition.
With St. Louis still contending with injury concerns and Chicago's defensive depth, this one goes ever so slightly to the Blackhawks.
CHI Offense vs. STL Defense
Assuming Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are fully healthy, there are few teams as dangerous offensively as the Blackhawks. They finished second in the NHL this season with an average of 3.18 goals per game and put up an average of 33.1 shots per game.
On the other side, however, the Blues have done an excellent job limiting opponents this year, ranking third in the league in shots against per game with an average of just 26.4 against. Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester have been a really solid duo this season, but the Blues succeed in their ability to play team defense. It shows in that the Blues were a top-10 possession team this season.
A few weeks ago, this would have been a clear, undisputed advantage for the Blues. It still is an advantage, but Ryan Miller's struggles over his last five games of the season should be cause for great concern and therefore not so clear. The mid-season acquisition lost all five of those games and gave up no less than three goals in each. Miller's April save percentage was .885. Yikes.
There's a difference between a bad stretch and being bad, though. Miller has been solid for much of the season and got off to a tremendous start in a Blues uniform. He has a .918 save percentage this year, which considering the circumstances he played under this year in Buffalo, is solid enough.
On the other side, Corey Crawford has a .917 save percentage. He also has earned the benefit of the doubt after putting together a solid postseason performance en route to the Stanley Cup last year. He has battled consistency issues all year, however, and will have a hard time shaking the “weak link” talk, especially if he struggles early.
It's been three years since Miller played in the postseason, but if he regains his form, he's the better of the two netminders historically.
Here's an area where the Blues are decisively better. St. Louis had a success rate of 19.8 percent on the power play, good for seventh in the league. That is going to be bad news for a Chicago penalty kill that has been poor much of the season. The Blackhawks were 19th in the league in penalty-kill percentage at 81.4.
The Blackhawks power play, which was a major bugaboo last postseason, was better in the regular season. The club was 10th in the NHL with a success rate of 19.8 percent.
The bad news for Chicago is that the Blues have been one of the best penalty-killing teams all season. St. Louis had the second-best PK mark in the NHL, having killed off 85.7 percent of their penalties this year. They had a lot of practice, too. St. Louis was shorthanded 293 times this year, fourth-most in the NHL.
|(2) St. Louis Blues vs.|
(3) Chicago Blackhawks
|Thu Apr 17||8 ET||St. Louis||NBCSN, CBC|
|Sat Apr 19||3 ET||St. Louis||NBC, CBC|
|Mon. Apr 21||8:30 ET||Chicago||CNBC, CBC|
|Wed. Apr 23||9:30 ET||Chicago||NBCSN, CBC|
|*Fri Apr 25||8 ET||St. Louis||NBCSN, CBC|
|*Sun Apr 27||3 ET||Chicago||NBC, CBC|
|*Tue Apr 29||TBD||St. Louis||TBD, CBC|
|* if necessary|