Breaking down the Blues-Blackhawks series

News-DemocratApril 16, 2014 

While many experts have the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks advancing past the struggling St. Louis Blues, others think the first-round series could be among the most entertaining in the NHL because of the rivalry and intense hatred between the teams and their respective fan bases.

The teams haven't met in the postseason since 2002, but are meeting in the playoffs for the 11th time. Chicago won seven of the first 10 meetings.

Here's a series breakdown:

FORWARDS

Few teams in the NHL have the combination of skill and scoring possessed by Chicago. Stars Jonathan Toews (28 goals, 68 points) and Patrick Kane (29 goals, 69 points) are expected back in the lineup after being sidelined by injuries, joining Patrick Sharp (34 goals, 78 points), Marian Hossa (30 goals, 60 points), Kris Versteeg and Brandon Saad. Last season's playoff breakout star Bryan Bickell can also be a dangerous scoring threats and Andrew Shaw is a versatile performer.

The Blues have leaned heavily on their top line of Alexander Steen (33 goals, 62 points), David Backes (27 goals, 57 points), and T.J. Oshie (21 goals, 60 points) this season and injuries have stretched the forward depth to the limit. Backes and Steen are two of the top defensive forwards in the league and Backes' physicality has bothered Chicago in the past.

Backes, Oshie, Vladimir Tarasenko, Vladimir Sobotka, Brenden Morrow and Patrik Berglund were all sidelined by injuries down the stretch and availability is still iffy for some o the group.

Tarasenko (21 goals, 43 points) and Jaden Schwartz (25 goals, 56 points) proved to be reliable scorers, while the Blues' experienced third- and fourth-line depth has proven adequate.

EDGE: Blackhawks

DEFENSE

Both teams have a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate with Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks and Alex Pietrangelo of the Blues.

Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester are the Blues' anchor unit and provide up to 30 minutes a night. Both are strong puck-movers and skaters with offensive upside.

Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk adds more scoring and skill and the Blues can handle the rough stuff with Barret Jackman and Roman Polak. It appears Jordan Leopold could be the sixth defenseman ahead of Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian Cole.

Keith had six goals and 61 points and could be in line for another Norris Trophy win after taking home the award in 2010. Brent Seabrook is another playoff-tested veteran and the Blackhawks also rely heavily on the duo of Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

ADVANTAGE: Blues

GOALIES

The Blues believe they upgraded themselves in goal for the playoffs when acquiring veteran Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 28. Miller lost his last five decisions after winning seven of his first eight, but has been strong in the postseason before.

He twice took the Sabres to the Eastern Conference finals.

Chicago has a Stanley Cup-winning netminder in Corey Crawford (32-16-10, 2.26 goals-against average, .917 save percentage). Crawford missed time with a lower-body injury and backup Antti Raanta performed well in his absence. Crawford has handled the bright lights and intense heat of the playoffs before and won't be fazed by this rivalry matchup.

ADVANTAGE: Even

COACHING

It's former Blues coach Joel Quenneville against current Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, two of the winningest coaches in NHL history.

Quenneville holds the Blues' record with 307 wins and Hitchcock ranks third with 124.

Quenneville has guided the Blackhawks to a pair of Stanley Cup titles (2010 and 2013) while Hitchcock won his with the Dallas Stars in 1999.

Both are supreme tacticians and master motivators who can seize upon the tiniest advantage to help their teams.

ADVANTAGE: Even, both coaches will end up in the Hall of Fame.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Many NHL playoff series are decided via the power play or penalty kill unit and both special teams units will be under the microscope in this series.

The Blues' power-play unit ranked in the top five most of the season before a late slump pushed it to eighth (19.8 percent). However, their penalty-kill unit has been exceptional and ranks second in the league (85.7 percent).

The Blackhawks possess a dangerous power play because of Toews, Kane and Hossa, but their penalty kill ranks 19th in the NHL (81.5 percent).

EDGE: Blues

PREDICTION

Blackhawks in seven in a series guaranteed to be an all-out war.

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders

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