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Playoff Preview: Cup contenders Blues, Blackhawks clash early

Monday, 04.14.2014 / 11:14 AM / Features
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Playoff Preview: Cup contenders Blues, Blackhawks clash early
At one point this season the Blues and Blackhawks were arguably the top two teams in the NHL, but late-season swoons by both have left them set to battle in what could be a rugged first-round series.

The St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks have been two of the top teams in the NHL all season, but a late-season slide by both will result in one of them being out of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs after the first round.

St. Louis and Chicago each finished with at least 107 points, but both finished behind the upstart the Colorado Avalanche in the Central Division. The Blues and Blackhawks will stage the second opening-round series in Stanley Cup Playoffs history where both teams have at least that many points. The San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators also had at least 107 in 2007.

The Blues were in position to not only win the Central but the Presidents' Trophy as the top team in the NHL as recently as April 3, but six straight losses to end the season left St. Louis in second place in the division. There is uncertainty about what the roster will look like for Game 1, because six regulars were out of the lineup at the end of regular season.

When healthy, the Blues were a defense-first machine that could score a lot of goals when needed. Coach Ken Hitchcock's philosophy combined with the talent and depth general manager Doug Armstrong assembled looked like a team primed to challenge the Blackhawks for division and NHL supremacy.

When the teams have five skaters on the ice, the Blackhawks have been tough to better this season. Chicago had the fewest regulation losses in the League until a late-season slide that coincided with its own injury problems. The Blackhawks went 1-7 in games decided in overtime and 6-8 in the shootout. Unless there are matching penalties during an overtime period in a playoff game, they will not face those situations again.

The Blackhawks brought nearly everyone back from a team that won the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup, and given the improvements made by Brandon Saad, Nick Leddy and Ben Smith along with the in-season additions of Kris Versteeg and Peter Regin, Chicago might be even better than that when healthy. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were not available at the end of the regular season but are expected to be ready for the Blues.

These teams have met 10 times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but not since 2002. The Blackhawks have won seven times, though the Blues have won the two most recent series.

St. Louis won the first three times the teams played in 2013-14; two were in shootouts. Chicago won the final two, including a 4-2 victory April 6.

The Blackhawks have set the standard in the NHL the past two seasons, and the Blues have been trying to catch them. Now they'll have a chance to prove they have in what should be one of the best matchups of the first round.

Forwards

The Blues have thrived with a four-line, everyone-contributes mantra that helped them collect the most wins (52) in their history, surpassing the Presidents' Trophy-winning team that won 51 in 1999-2000.

Captain David Backes, who has garnered Selke Trophy talk in recent seasons, paves the way for a group that includes Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie, who have had career years in goals, assists and points. Second-year players Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, each picked in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft (14th and 16th, respectively), continued their ascension in the NHL.

Tarasenko, who finished the regular season with 21 goals and 43 points in 64 games, missed the final 15 games with a broken right thumb and could return for the first round.

Vladimir Sobotka is one of the more unheralded defensive centers in the League and is a top-notch faceoff specialist. Patrik Berglund provides size down the middle, but he and Derek Roy, brought in to add scoring and depth down the middle, have been streaky players. Veteran Brenden Morrow, if healthy, would bring a playoff pedigree and leadership to a team learning how to win this time of year, as does Steve Ott, a former captain with the Buffalo Sabres acquired before the NHL Trade Deadline.

Maxim Lapierre, Ryan Reaves, Chris Porter, Magnus Paajarvi and Dmitrij Jaskin are energy players with grit and skill potential.

Scoring will go a long way in determining if the Blues can advance. They've been stymied by Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings the past two seasons.

Injuries could be a serious problem. Backes, Oshie, Berglund, Sobotka and Morrow missed the end of the regular season because of injury, along with Tarasenko. It's unclear how many of them will be ready for Game 1.

It took a while, but the Blackhawks eventually replaced the depth roles in their bottom six that was left behind by the departures of forwards Dave Bolland (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Michael Frolik (Winnipeg Jets).

Ben Smith handled Frolik's right-wing spot on the fourth line for most of the season but proved even more valuable down the stretch. He logged quality shifts at center or right wing on the second and third groups in his first full NHL season and continued to improve.

Andrew Shaw proved his value by playing center or wing anywhere from the top line to the third unit. Power forward Bryan Bickell is finally rounding into his 2013 playoff form, veteran Michal Handzus is back to winning key faceoffs, and the duo of Marcus Kruger and Brandon Bollig provide consistency on a fourth line that draws a lot of tough defensive assignments.

Chicago has an embarrassment of riches among the top-six forwards. Toews (upper body) and Kane (lower body) should be fully healed after late-season injuries and will rejoin leading scorer Patrick Sharp (34 goals and 78 points), Marian Hossa (30 goals and 60 points), Versteeg and Saad.

Providing even more quality depth could be Regin, right wing Jeremy Morin rookie Joakim Nordstrom, who all chipped in positively during the final stretch of the season with Toews and Kane out. Rookie forward Teuvo Teravainen, who was sent to Rockford of the American Hockey League just before the final weekend, will likely be more of a story next season but could be recalled should injuries be a problem.

Defensemen

The Blues defense is anchored by Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. Each received a contract extension prior to the season, and the two minute-munchers lead one of the stingiest units in the League. Pietrangelo had a career high in assists (43) and matched his best point total (51).

Kevin Shattenkirk is an offensive-minded player who set career-highs in assists (35) and points (45), and has played the majority of the season with gritty Barret Jackman, a stay-at-home defenseman who relishes the distinction of irritating foes and playing a rugged style.

Roman Polak typically plays on the third pairing, but the Czech Republic native has been partnered with Jackman, Carlo Colaiacovo, Jordan Leopold and Ian Cole this season.

Leopold has had a frustrating, injury-marred season with a hand injury and most recently a high ankle sprain he said won't completely heal until after the season. Colaiacovo, signed early in the season for depth purposes, is the leading candidate to emerge as the sixth defenseman when the first round begins because of his recent strong play.

The Blues are among the League leaders in fewest goals allowed and pride themselves in smothering the opposition.

Chicago had eight defensemen on the roster coming out of training camp and kept it that way most of the season. The only thing that changed was the name of the eighth.

Michael Kostka broke camp in that spot as a free-agent acquisition but was claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was replaced by Swedish defenseman David Rundblad in a trade with the Phoenix Coyotes. Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank were part of a three-man rotation as the sixth defenseman, next to Nick Leddy, so they should be plenty rested.

Duncan Keith had a career year with six goals and 61 points in 79 games. He'll be in the mix for the Norris Trophy, an award he won in 2010. That was the season Chicago ended its Stanley Cup drought at 49 straight years without a championship. Some, including Joel Quenneville, think Keith's better now.

His huge season overshadowed a solid season by longtime partner Brent Seabrook, who finished with seven goals and 41 points. Keith and Seabrook are one of the best tandems in the League, but the second pairing is a separator among the elite for the Blackhawks.

Swedish countrymen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya give Quenneville another shutdown pairing he can employ against opposing top lines. They also get involved offensively by moving the puck, pinching into the offensive zone at times and launching well-timed shots from the point.

Goalies

The Blues relied on the steady 1-2 punch of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott the past two seasons. The duo won the Jennings Trophy following the 2011-12 season, but general manager Doug Armstrong believed that for the Blues to advance, an upgrade -- albeit even a slight one -- was needed.

The trade with the Sabres that yielded Ryan Miller (along with Ott) Feb. 28 was designed for the Blues to have a playoff equalizer.

Elliott started against the Kings the past two postseasons and wasn't on par with Quick. Halak, who was traded to the Sabres as part of the package to get Miller and Ott, never truly got the chance at a Stanley Cup Playoff run with the Blues.

Miller, 25-22 in 47 playoff starts with three shutouts, has been as far as the Eastern Conference Final twice in his career with the Sabres. The Blues are counting on him as a difference-maker.

It didn't take too long for Chicago's original plan in net to get scrapped. Veteran Nikolai Khabibulin was signed in the offseason as a free agent to be Corey Crawford's backup, but he went 1-0-1 and played in four games, posting a 5.01 goals-against average and .811 save percentage.

Khabibulin eventually had rotator-cuff surgery, which ended his season in mid-November. Finnish rookie Antti Raanta, who was supposed to get a full season in the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs, was pressed into backup duty. He's handled it well, including a stint as the top option when Crawford missed most of the games in December with a lower-body injury.

Raanta's play dipped a little after Crawford returned, but he's a capable backup. Crawford remains a steady option heading into the postseason. He has a Stanley Cup championship on his resume.

His injury might have been a blessing in disguise. It allowed him a month off after playing in 27 of the season's first 33 games. It also might've factored into not making Canada's roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which provided another two weeks off the ice to rest. Crawford saw a lot of work down the stretch but should be ready for an extended playoff run.

Coaches

Hitchcock brings a wealth of experience and Stanley Cup success. When he was hired by the Blues in 2011, it was for the purpose of helping the franchise advance during this time.

Hitchcock won a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999 and reached the Cup Final the following season (losing to the New Jersey Devils in six games), but he has yet to reach the pinnacle in stints with the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets or the Blues. He won the Jack Adams Award in 2012 and has 72 postseason victories.

The 62-year-old, who is second to Quenneville for most regular-season wins among active coaches, relies on an experienced staff that includes associate coach Brad Shaw, who works with the defensemen; Gary Agnew, Hitchcock's assistant in charge of the power play; Ray Bennett; and goalie coach Corey Hirsch.

Quenneville, the only active coach with his name on the Stanley Cup twice, is a great fit on the bench for the collection of talent that sits in front of him each game. In parts of six seasons, he's not only led the Blackhawks to NHL championships in 2010 and 2013 but has ascended to the top of the team's coaching list.

He holds the highest regular-season points percentage and the best postseason winning percentage (.613) in Blackhawks history with a 46-29 record. His 706 regular-season victories put him third all-time in the NHL, behind Al Arbour (782) and Blackhawks senior adviser Scotty Bowman (1,244).

Statistics aside, Quenneville's knack for pushing the right motivational buttons, unrelenting demand for two-way play, and keen ability to win the coaching matchup make him one of game's elite bench bosses.

Special teams

The Blues are one of four teams (Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers) to be in the top 10 in power-play and penalty-kill efficiency. But during the Blues' recent losing streak, Hitchcock expressed concern about the special teams.

When the special teams are clicking, they've been near unbeatable. Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo anchor the penalty kill from the back line, and Steen, Backes and Shattenkirk are the mainstays on the man-advantage.

Chicago's power play started off as one of the NHL's best and has remained in the top 10 despite a few lulls along the way. The penalty kill is another story. That's where Frolik and Bolland were missed most, as the Blackhawks struggled to find their replacements.

Chicago had one of the worst penalty-killing success rates in the NHL for the better part of the season's first half but steadily improved as the season progressed. A number of forwards have taken a crack at pressuring the puck and blocking shots the way Frolik and Bolland did, and eventually they gained some much-needed chemistry in their defensive coverage assignments.

The Blackhawks were ranked in the bottom half of the final overall rankings, but were markedly better on the road than at United Center. They upped their success rate about five percentage points from the season average following the Olympic break.

Series changer

Vladimir Tarasenko -- When Tarasenko scored, the Blues were 16-2-1, and 25-2-2 when he had a point. They need him back from the injury which sidelined him late in the season. Steen is a good candidate for this distinction, but he will draw the attention of the opposition's top checkers. Tarasenko has the speed and strength to make a huge impact on a Blues team that can advance deep if they can put the puck in the net.

Bryan Bickell -- The obvious candidates for the Blackhawks are guys like Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa, and each one will play a key role in how far the Blackhawks ultimately make it. Bickell, however, has already shown the ability to impact a playoff series in a big way. If Bickell produces like he did during the 2013 playoffs, on top of all those elite players elsewhere, the Blackhawks will again be a very tough matchup.

Will win if

Blues will win if … They score. It was their greatest issue when they were eliminated in six games last season by the Kings. The goaltending and defensive structure is in place to shut down anyone, but with 11 players at 32 points or more, and five (Steen, Backes, Schwartz, Tarasenko and Oshie) at 21 goals or more, the Blues have enough balance to share the wealth. Getting offensive help from Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk and Bouwmeester will make the Blues that much deeper.

Blackhawks will win if … They find the same inner drive and confidence they had a year ago. The talent on this team is arguably as good, if not better, than the 2013 championship team. If mental fatigue from playing a lot of hockey in the past 15 months becomes an issue, it could be a short trip through the postseason. If the competitive desire remains high, they have a good chance to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998.