WARR’s hockey writer Sidney Brown will offer his takes on the Blackhawks throughout their postseason run as well as predictions on the rest of the NHL
Ladies and gentlemen, the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are officially here and for your defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks they are here with a vengeance.
Awaiting the sixth-seeded Hawks in Round 1 of the Western Conference side of the bracket is No. 3 seeded St. Louis, arguably the toughest opponent Chicago has faced during this regular season. For much of the 2013-14 campaign this match looked more destined for the second round, or perhaps the Western Conference Finals.
It would be the upstart Colorado Avalanche who would clinch the Central Division title in the end, while the third-place Hawks could only do a respectable 4-2 mark without Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for the last couple weeks of the season. A greater slump occurred for the Blues, who were atop the Central for much of the middle of the season. St. Louis lost their last six games in a row in order to fall to second place and in position to form the team directly under them due to the NHL’s new postseason format.
Due to the reformatting, division rivals now face each other for the first two rounds — two lower teams meeting as in the Hawks and Blues, while the two top seeds from each division each face wild cards from their division — familiar rivalries get to be showcased in the most exciting games of the year and previously lukewarm rivalries can be inflamed under the pressure of the Cup playoffs.
These two long-time rivals will be facing each other in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, when St. Louis defeated the Hawks in the first round 4-1. A similar storyline that we’ve seen throughout this season arises from this year’s match-up: we’re looking at the Hawks’ speed and skill facing an opponent offering physical play and strong defense.
Which team has the advantage? Which goalie will stand tall? Will the Blues score enough goals? Will the Hawks buckle under the pressure of the Blues’ physical pounding? Will the Blues take advantage of its home ice advantage Who will rise up as an unsung hero? Let’s find out the answers.
Blackhawks vs. Blues (Head to Head)
Record: Hawks (2-3); Blues (3-2)
Goals per game: Hawks (3.40); Blues (2.80)
Power Play percentage: Hawks (35.7%); Blues (26.7%)
Penalty Kill percentage: Hawks (73.3%); Blues (64.3%)
Face-off percentage: Hawks (51.5%); Blues (48.5%)
Blackhawks — This high-powered group welcomes back their most important stars, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, after their time off from late season injuries. Rust will be an issue for both in the early shifts of the series, but the intensity of the playoffs should force them to get up to speed.
We must not forget about team-leading scorer Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, the only Hawks to score 30-plus goals this season. I believe the x-factor in this series will be Bryan Bickell, who rose from the ashes in last year’s playoff run, scoring nine goals and maintaining a constant presence in front of the net. Bickell’s battled injuries all season long, but he should be well rested and ready to roll, and with the style of play that the Blues offer, Bickell will be called upon to mix it up physically and he should be up for the challenge.
Blues — St. Louis’ sixth-ranked offense (3.6 goals per game) is led by Alexander Steen, who netted 33 goals and 29 assists and his partner in crime (and U.S. Olympic hero) T.J. Oshie, who scored 21 goals along with 39 assists, making their first line potentially lethal.
Captain David Backes (27 goals, 30 assists) and second-year sensation Vladimir Tarasenko (21 goals, 22 assists) could also be threats to explode at anytime. Derek Roy, Steve Ott and Brendan Morrow also provide veteran leadership and their presence will be known on the ice as they try to shutdown the Hawks’ top guns. If the Blues are going to win this series, consistent scoring will have to come from Oshie and Steen. It’s their only shot if they’re going to try and keep up with the Hawks.
Blackhawks — The top defensive pair in the NHL — Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith — are playoff tough and ready and also makes as good a pair of scorers as you can see on the back line. Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Nick Leddy, Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank provide depth and have the important jobs of making sure the third and fourth lines of the Blues do not become a factor. Expect this group to be ready to counteract the Blues offensive attack and physical hitting.
Blues — This team’s top pair features and Jay Bouwmeester. Kevin Shattenkirk and the hard hitting Barret Jackman stand behind them and Roman Polak, Ian Cole and Carlo Colaiacovo round out the defense group. Expect constant hitting and hard checking from all three defensive pairs in trying to wear down the Hawks’ experienced and skillful lead scorers. If this group can tire out the Hawks as the series progresses, the Blues will have a major edge in this series.
Blackhawks — Recent struggles on the power play were pervasive to end the regular season so expect the Hawks to try and keep things simple by being patient and creating traffic in front of the net, mostly through Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw. As for the strikers, Sharp and Kane both led the team with 10 PP goals while Duncan Keith led with 18 PP assists.
The penalty kill unit struggled thru most of the first half of the season but picked up toward the end of the regular season, finishing 19th in the NHL. Expect the likes of Ben Smith, Marcus Kruger, Shaw, Michal Handzus and Brandon Bollig to try to shutdown the Blues’ eighth-ranked power play and hopefully not taking a pile of penalties, which has been a problem at the PK’s worst.
Blues — Steen, Shattenkirk and David Backes lead one of the NHL’s best power play units with Backes sporting a team-high 10 PP goals while Shattenkirk led with 19 PP assists. Their second-ranked penalty kill (85.7%) feeds off the work of Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo but they’ll have a tall order to stop Chicago for even the majority of this series. If this group can contain the high-powered man advantage of the Hawks, give them a pat on the back … and possibly the series as well.
Blackhawks — Corey Crawford has had another solid season and against the Blues he was at an all-star level, maintaining a 2-1-1 record with a save percentage of .935. Crawford this year is looking to follow up his outstanding performance in last year’s playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup. Expect Crawford to go shot for shot against one of the league’s most notable goalies in Ryan Miller.
Blues — Acquiring Miller from Buffalo in the beginning of March stole the show at the trade deadline, but the move was made explicitly for this moment right now. Miller started out hot, winning his first seven games for St. Louis, but the team’s slide late coincided with his own personal slump.
Miller’s record with the Blues has been just above average (10-8-1), while his goals allowed (2.47) and save percentage (.903) have been respectable. But should he struggle for any reason, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Blues coach Ken Hitchcock to turn to backup Brian Elliot, who leads the team in goals against with 1.96 per game.
Miller is a much heralded player who has been through many playoff battles with the Buffalo Sabres. The Blues made the Miller trade to get past the Hawks and the rest of the Western Conference and they indeed are one of this year’s top contenders, and by the way they are trying to win their first ever Stanley Cup and with that pressure on him the time is now.
For the Hawks, they’ll need to stay disciplined as the Blues come at them with their physical hard hitting style and power play scoring.
For the Blues, they’ll need to wear down the Hawks with their physical presence, strong defensive play and clutch goaltending from Miller.
My Prediction: Blackhawks in six.
The Road Ahead (Series Schedule)
Game 1: Thursday at St. Louis 7PM CT (CSN Chicago, NBCSN)
Game 2: Saturday at St. Louis 2PM CT (NBC)
Game 3: Monday at Chicago 7:30PM CT (CSN Chicago, CNBC)
Game 4: Wednesday at Chicago 8:30PM CT (CSN Chicago, NBCSN)
Game 5: April 25 at St. Louis 7PM CT (CSN Chicago, NBCSN)*
Game 6: April 27 at Chicago 2PM CT (NBC)*
Game 7: April 29 at St. Louis TBD (CSN Chicago)*
*= If Necessary
Other Playoff Predictions
Colorado vs. Minnesota — Colorado in five
LA Kings vs. San Jose –San Jose in seven
Anaheim vs Dallas — Dallas in seven *UPSET ALERT*
Tampa Bay vs. Montreal — Tampa Bay in six
Philadelphia vs. NY Rangers — Rangers in seven
Pittsburgh vs. Columbus — Pittsburgh in six
Boston vs. Detroit — Boston in seven
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