The Blackhawks head to St. Louis on Thursday for their Game 1 matchup against the Blues, opening the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs for both squads. Chicago went 2-1-2 against the Blues this season, but outscored their Central Division rivals 8-2 in the final two matchups of the year. Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane tied for the scoring lead against St. Louis this year, each racking up six points (2G, 4A) in five and four games, respectively.
Thursday’s game will mark the return of both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who were shut down for the regular season following injuries. Kane, who led the Blackhawks in scoring when he was injured on March 19 vs. St. Louis, missed 12 games for Chicago, while captain Jonathan Toews has been out since March 30. With arguably the two most important forwards back in the fold, Head Coach Joel Quenneville looks poised to spread out his talent for the playoffs; Kane will play on the third line with Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell, while Toews returns to the top line with Brandon Saad and Kris Versteeg.
As much as the Blackhawks have missed Kane and Toews, the Blues enter Thursday’s game on a six-game losing streak, largely due to injuries sustained throughout their lineup. Among the Blues dealing with various issues: David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Sobotka, Brenden Morrow, Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrik Berglund, any of whom could return as soon as Game 1. Without their depth up front, the Blues may have a hard time putting up the goals they’ll need to keep up with the Blackhawks’ offense.
Coming off a postseason when he was one of best players for the Stanley Cup champions, Corey Crawford will once again be a major key to the Blackhawks’ success this spring. While regular-season numbers don’t automatically translate to the postseason, Crawford did put up very competitive numbers against the Blues this year, going 2-1-1 with a 1.72 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
The Chicago-St. Louis first-round series features two of the best two-way defensemen in the game in Duncan Keith and Alex Pietrangelo. Keith led all NHL blueliners with 55 assists and was second with 61 points, while Pietrangelo’s 51 points were good for eighth among D-men. It should come as no surprise that both rearguards have been very productive on the power play, as well: Keith netted 21 points (3G, 18A) with the man advantage, third on the Blackhawks, and Pietrangelo’s 18 points (2G, 16A) were second on the team behind only fellow defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
Bitter rivals in the days of the old Norris Division, when they faced off six times in the playoffs between 1980 and 1990, the Blackhawks and Blues are ready for their first postseason meeting since 2002. With a full complement of players for the first time in nearly a month, the Blackhawks say they feel energized and ready to battle. The Blues, known as one of the more physical teams in the league, will do their best to take Chicago away from the things they do best – great puck movement, speedy skating and playing responsibly in all zones – and turn the series into a slow-moving, hard-hitting affair. Game 1 has the chance to set the tone: If the Blackhawks use their skill, they may be able to put St. Louis back on their heels long enough to come back to Chicago with at least a series split, if not more.