After completely dominating the NHL a year ago, the Blackhawks will get a chance to defend their 2013 Stanley Cup beginning with a first round series with the Blues. This Blackhawks team is very similar to the one that defeated the Bruins to win hockey's grandest prize just a year ago.
On the flipside, St. Louis is a team completely in win-now mode, with possibly the pieces to do so. The only problem is the Blues are trending downward, and have some key injuries at the wrong time. This matchup is one of the more intriguing in the entire first round, and could play out incredibly close.
Deep on D
What both teams' defensemen do so well is combine a blend of size and skill. Duncan Keith of Chicago is one of the favorites in this year's Norris race. Add in the likes of Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, and the Blackhawks have one the most formidable defensive units in all of hockey.
If St. Louis is behind them in that area of the ice, it's not by much. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are dynamic players with great up-ice vision similar to Keith, and the ability to get shots through to net. They're surrounded by a group of grizzled veterans like Jay Bouwmeester and Barrett Jackman. These are two highly skilled teams defensively, and watching the kind of plays they can make from their respective blue lines will be on display all series.
Health might decide the scoring game
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews pace the Hawks, and both players enter this year's postseason banged up (Kane with a knee injury, Toews with an upper-body injury). They'll will be challenged by a big, physical Blues blue line.
Chicago isn't short of other skill players, though, with Keith, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa rounding out a group five players who recorded 60 or more points for Chicago this season. Add in the depth guys that provide size and can still find the back of the net like Brandon Saad and Bryan Bickell, and Chicago has a talented group of forwards that basically looks a lot like last year's team.
The calling card of the Blues forwards is their hard-to-play-against, imposing puck possession style. The only problem currently for St. Louis is they're rather banged up. In their final game of the season against the Red Wings, St. Louis was without David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Sobotka, Brendan Morrow, Derek Roy, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Patrik Berglund.
Backes and Morrow are expected ready for Game 1, but beyond that, it's unknown who out of the rest of that seven will be ready, and what kind of shape they'll be in. They'll still have their top goal scorer in Alex Steen, but after a torrid start that was buoyed by an unsustainable shooting percentage, Steen has cooled off, only scoring five goals over his last 23 games.
The extent of St. Louis' injuries may be too much for any team to overcome, especially when facing a defending Stanley Cup champion with many of the same pieces. The effectiveness of Oshie and Backes is pretty paramount to St. Louis extending this series.
Who has the edge in goal?
Who would you rather have in net: a goalie with two Stanley Cup trophies, and 115 career wins, or one with no championships and 294 career wins. Player ‘A' is Corey Crawford, the latter is Ryan Miller, and while there may not be a correct answer to this question, each netminder provides a distinctly different benefit to his club.
Acquired at the trade deadline, Miller left the lowly Sabres to join a contender and chase a Cup. While St. Louis had no problems in net with Jaroslav Halak through the beginning part of its season, Miller was seen as a piece to put St. Louis over the edge. But Miller's tenure thus far in St. Louis hasn't gone quite according to plan, as his 5v5 save percentage has dipped nearly 10 points. Part of that is facing significantly fewer shots per game, as he went from facing just over 35 shots per contest to just fewer than 24.
Miller isn't short on playoff experience, and has actually started more postseason games than Crawford (47 versus 37), but is still looking to find his groove playing for a new team.
For a team that split time between its goalies during the regular season last year, Crawford emerged for Chicago in a big way during the postseason. Leading the Blackhawks to the Cup, Crawford posted a .932 save percentage and a 1.84 goals against in 23 postseason games a year ago. Quietly, Crawford is a big piece of the puzzle for Chicago, and if he can turn in a similar performance to what he posted in 2013, the Blackhawks will be in excellent shape.
Injuries hurting Blues' special teams
The bad news extends to special teams for the Blues, as that banged up group of forwards plays in every scenario. Backes and Oshie are stellar on the penalty kill, and their offensive talents combined for 15 goals in man-advantage situations this season. While they're expected back in the lineup soon if not in time for Game 1, relying on them to play big minutes and stay out for special teams time could wear on them pretty quickly. Shattenkirk is a weapon from the blue line, and St. Louis still has one of the top penalty kills in the league (but again, currently suffering from missing responsible forwards).
That penalty kill will be put to the test against a decent Chicago power play unit, which comes as no surprise considering how saturated with talent it is. Keith and Seabrook quarterback and orchestrate the action for the Blackhawks, and with the creativity of guys like Sharp and Kane, Chicago's power play forces the opposition to defend for the full two minutes.
With the scoring trouble St. Louis might encounter down all of those aforementioned forwards, if the Blackhawks power play starts finding the back of the net consistently, it could spell the end for the Blues.