3 Rounds is a three-part series. Writers select what they feel is the most important individual match-up in the upcoming playoff series and give it an in-depth preview. The second piece is a mid-series assessment of that match-up. In the final installment, we analyze how the match-up contributed to the outcome of the series. If our match-up isn’t the difference-maker, we’ll explore the match-up that DID make the difference.
When you think about excellence in the NHL in the recent past, there are few teams that absolutely come to mind over and over again. Two of those teams are the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks who have been amongst the NHL elite and have consistently found themselves at the top of the Western Conference standings in recent yearst. However, while the Blackhawks have had exceptional success in the playoffs, with two Stanley cups in the last four years, to Blues seem to be always the bridesmaid and never the bride in the post-season. This year the Bluse have gone all-in to change that with the acquisition of Ryan Miller at the NHL trade deadline. This was a Blues team that was put together for one reason, and that is to win the Stanley Cup. The Hawks though, are the defending champs, and they won’t let go of their stranglehold on the cup easily. And so we have one of the most intriguing matchups of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, its the Blues vs Blackhawks in a best of seven.
The difference makers (Blues Defence vs Hawks Offence)
Our key here is a good old fashioned matchup. The Blues have gone out and acquired an elite goaltender. It has been believed for a while now that goaltending was the only thing holding back the Blues from a championship. Between freak injuries or just poor play the Blues goaltending has struggled come the post-season. It is hoped that they have resolved this issue with the acquisition of Ryan Miller. However there is one little problem. In his first few games in St. Louis, Miller started as hot as a red Ferrari in front of a Monte Carlo casino, but he’s not been quite as good in the past few games, and the Blues head to the playoffs on a six-game losing streak. The pressure is on and I am sure Brian Elliot is ready to step in and it is surprising he has not been playing more as his stats this year have been terrific. Whoever shows up for the black n’ blue Blues will have to be outstanding, as St. Louis is missing a number of key forwards.
In front of Miller will be one of the best defensive groups in the league. Led by olympians Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Jay Bouwmeester, the Blues are extremely strong on the blue line. They are mobile, they are good in both ends of the ice, and they are the core and key strength of a team that got 111 points this season. Pietrangelo has emerged as one of the best defencemen in the league, and is a legitimate Norris contender. To top it all off, David Backes and Alex Steen are a pair of excellent two way forwards, and both could receive votes for the Selke Trophy this season. Overall the team plays a strong defensive structure in front of their goalie, and its the style that Ken Hitchcock loves. The Blues would like nothing more than to get in 2-1 and 1-0 games.
Meanwhile the Blackhawks have one of the most dynamic offenses in the NHL. Up front Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are expected to be healthy, and they are complimented by players like Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, legitimate superstars in their own right.
They also have a bottom six of role players who can be difference makers and came up with ways to score big goals in both of their cup victories. Whether it is Bryan Bickell who came up with nine goals last year in the playoffs, or Andrew Shaw who scored a number of big goals for the team, or Brandon Saad who is a strong young power winger in the making, or Kris Versteeg who was so large in the 2010 Stanley Cup victory.
The grit, speed, and goal scoring ability of the Hawks can be overwhelming at times and while the big guns like Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa dazzle, put up the most points, and play the most minutes. The fact is that you can never relax against the Blackhawks, and their bottom six also has the potential to hurt you if you allow them too.
The Hawks offence really starts at the back end with players like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Nick Leddy who can start the transition game with their skating and by making great passes. Duncan Keith has had a fabulous season and is likely the Norris favorite this year. Keith has put up 61 points on the season while averaging 24 minutes per game. The big reason he will be very successful is his performance on the powerplay. Special teams can make a huge difference in the playoffs, and having such a versatile player running the point can be really beneficial to any team. Every goal is worth more in the playoffs and getting an offensive output from Keith on the powerplay unit would not be a surprise.
The Question Marks
The health status of both teams is the big question and the fact that the teams are not playing on the opening day of the playoffs is a big blessing for both clubs. The Blues limped into the playoffs losing six in a row and the Hawks finished 5-5 in their last ten games. The top six units for both teams have been absolutely ripped apart and the Blues really struggled to score goals without their big name forwards. To be honest if Blues do not find a way to get Backes, Vladimir Tarasenko, T.J. Oshie, and Vladimir Sobotka back it could be a short series no matter how good their goaltending and defence is.
For Chicago there are still question marks as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews missed games at the end of the regular season, and will they are expected to play, its unclear if they will be 100% for the start of the playoffs.
Blues vs Blackhawks: The Verdict
I am going to take the Hawks to win this series six games. Ryan Miller will play well but the offensive superiority of the Hawks will be too much to handle. With the questions regarding the returns of TJ Oshie and David Backes for the Blues, the Hawks are simply too fast and too deep for Blues to really match up well without them. We saw how the Blues limped their way into the playoffs and I just do not see them fixing the sinking ship that quickly, especially if the top two guys are not going to be 100%. It is a tough break for a strong St. Louis team, but the Hawks will move on to the second round giving the Hawks faithful a lot of spring-time hockey this year.
As for our other hockey experts: here is how they see it.
Aaron Wrotkowski: Blackhawks in seven.
Ben Kerr: Blackhawks in five.
Ken Hill: Blackhawks in six.
Dan Rochi: Blackhawks in five.
Russell McKenzie: Blues in seven.
Mitch Tierney: Blues in seven.
Jacob Cohen: Blues in seven.
Charlie O’Connor Clarke: Blues in seven.
Cristiano Simonetta: Blues in seven.
An even split with 5 on each side.
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