(Ed. Note: With its new playoff format, the NHL is seeking to create passion for fans and teams through forced, bracketed relationships. But hey, at first glance, the matchups are pretty sexy. All of this led to one ideal theme for our 2014 Playoff Preview: Tinder, the social media dating app. We hope you swipe right this postseason ...)
The St. Louis Blues looked like they were going to avoid the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1 … until a late season injury-fueled tumble led to the Colorado Avalanche hopping over them into first place in the Central and dropped the Blues into a very tough first-round battle.
Both teams faced post-Sochi injuries to star players, but should have the majority of them back for this series.
Who wins this showdown between former Norris Division rivals?
The biggest question for the St. Louis Blues entering this series was how many of the forwards listed here would actually appear against the Blackhawks. The Blues were hit with several injuries up front in the last month of the season.
But the cavalry is arriving at the right time.
T.J. Oshie is one of those forwards, trying to return from an assumed concussion. He had 60 points in the regular season, playing top line minutes with Alex Steen, whose 33 goals led the Blues. David Backes was usually the center on that dominating line, tallying 57 points, but one wonders of Ken Hitchcock won’t spread the wealth in the playoffs and make defending their offense tougher for Chicago.
Secondary scoring will be key, which puts Jaden Schwartz (56 points) and Vladimir Tarasenko (43 points) in the spotlight, the latter player returning from injury. Vladimir Sobotka, another one of the walking wounded, should center those two. He’s one of the most underrated two-centers in the conference.
Patrik Berglund (32 points) and Derek Roy (37 points) can help if healthy. Ditto Brenden Morrow, who usually plays his best in the postseason. Steve Ott, Max Lapierre, Magnus Paajarvi, Adam Cracknell and Chris Porter also bring their unique sets of skills to the lineup.
For the Blackhawks, Patrick Sharp led the team with 78 points, including 42 goals, but that’s probably because the dynamic Patrick Kane (29 goals, 69 points) was limited to 69 games due to injury. Sharp, Jonathan Toews (68 points) and Marian Hossa (60 points) form a line that can beat you offensively and shut you down defensively.
That is, if that line plays together. Joel Quenneville is a notorious line juggler in the playoffs, and has been using Toews with Kris Versteeg (29 points) and Brandon Saad (47 points) in practice. Michal Handzus was in between Sharp and Hossa, while Kane was reunited with an effective line from last year’s playoff run: Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell.
Ben Smith, Joakim Nordstrom, Peter Regin and Brandon Bollig round out the lineup.
The Blues defense produces points, drives possession and is generally awesome. It starts with Alex Pietrangelo (51 points) and Jay Bouwmeester (37 points), one of the League’s best pairings. Kevin Shattenkirk (45 points) is the other top offensive D-man, and he’s skated mostly with Carlo Colaiacovo. Barret Jackman and Roman Polak bring some beef and snarl.
The Blackhawks will likely have a Norris Trophy winner in Duncan Keith, whose 61 points were second among defensemen. As usually, Brent Seabrook will run shotgun with him. They’re the top pairing, but it’s Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya that draw the top defensive assignments for the Blackhawks. Nick Leddy, Sheldon Brookbank, Michal Rozsival and David Rundblad round out the group.
Simply put, Ryan Miller can win a series on his own. But he was inconsistent by his own admission in 19 games for the Blues, with a .903 save percentage. Was that a result of the team in front of him falling apart or Miller struggling? If we see Brian Elliott in the first round, that’s means things aren’t going all that well for the Blues. At all.
Corey Crawford returns after back-stopping the Hawks to the Cup, with a .917 save percentage and a 2.26 GAA in the regular season. Once again, he’ll probably not be the reason Chicago wins or loses in the series. Antti Raanta is the backup, having yet to appear in the postseason.
The Blues lost six in a row and were 3-7-0 down the stretch, thanks to getting slammed by injuries.
The Blackhawks, without Toews and Kane, were 5-5-0 down the stretch. So neither team enters the playoffs sizzling hot at the moment.
Ken Hitchcock has gotten the Blues to the playoffs in each of his three seasons in St. Louis, but the Blues have only advanced in one of those seasons. Can he conjure some offense that has been in absent in previous seasons?
Joel Quenneville has won two Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks, showing an ability to move pieces around when necessary. He pushes a lot of buttons. They’re usually the right ones.
The Blues were seventh in the NHL on the power play at 19.8 percent and second on the kill at 85.7 percent.
The Blackhawks were 10th on the power play at 19.5 percent and 19th on the kill at 81.4 percent. Who knew Michael Frolik was so darn vital?
SERIES SLOW JAM
“Misty Blue” by Dorothy Moore. Oh, it’s been such a long, long time since you made the finals, St. Louis. (Bonus: Moore was born in Missouri!) (Actually, Mississippi. D'oh.)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
SWIPE LEFT ON … T.J. Oshie, who is battling through a concussion and has actually been terrible in the postseason in his three previous trips: two goals and three assists in 19 games. No shootouts in the playoffs, sir.
SWIPE RIGHT ON … Patrick Kane, last season’s Conn Smythe winner, who should be rested and ready for the first round. If Quenneville uses him off the top two lines, that could be an easier defensive assignment for one of the league’s most dynamc scorers.
Blackhawks in six. The Blues are getting healthy at the right time, but so is Chicago. We’re still worried about the St. Louis offense, and whether Miller can give them what they traded for in goal. It wouldn’t shock us to see the Blues win, but it says here Blackhawks in six.