1. RIVALRY RENEWED
When the puck drops at Scottrade Center on Wednesday in Game 1 between the Blackhawks and Blues, it will mark the 12th postseason clash between two teams that have nurtured an organic rivalry since 1970. The two teams played each other fairly closely in five meetings during the regular season, contesting three overtime or shootout games (all won by St. Louis); Chicago had a 14-12 goal differential and 155-150 edge in shots on goal. Patrick Kane led the Blackhawks with five points (2G, 3A) in five games, while Vladimir Tarasenko paced the Blues with five goals and seven points in five outings. The two teams last met in the 2014 First Round, when four of the six tilts went to overtime and Chicago overcame a 0-2 series deficit to win the next four and advance. Jonathan Toews netted three game-winners in the series, and the Blackhawks went 27-for-29 on the penalty kill.
2. HEALTH IS WEALTH
The biggest boost for both teams heading into Game 1 is the health status of some of their core players. The Blackhawks expect to have Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov and Andrew Shaw back in the lineup in their usual spots after suffering injuries in the final week of action. Hossa will return to the top line, Anisimov to the second line and Shaw to the checking line. More importantly, Corey Crawford got a one-game tune-up on Saturday in Columbus after missing a few weeks of action.
"You'd like to have depth; you'd like to have as many options at your disposal as possible," Head Coach Joel Quenneville said after Monday's practice. "We missed some key guys down the stretch, and hopefully they come back fresher."
The Blues welcomed back captain David Backes and power forward Troy Brouwer to practice on Tuesday and also figure to have a healthy Jake Allen backing up Brian Elliott when the series commences. With all players seemingly healthy on both sides of the matchup, both teams feel they are in a good position to get off to a good start.
“I think this is the first day since the middle of the summer that we’ve had everybody available to us as a team,” Backes told the Blues website. “That’s impeccable timing, because this is when you want all your weapons on hand."
If the Blackhawks are to shut down the Blues over a seven-game series, they'll need to focus their efforts on Tarasenko, who has grown into one of the league's most lethal scorers, bringing an extra dimension to St. Louis' offense over the last three seasons. The 24-year-old tallied a career-high 74 points in 80 games this season, including a personal-best 40 goals, ranking fourth in the NHL. Tarasenko enjoyed an extremely productive streak down the stretch, compiling 20 points (11G, 9A) in 17 games since March 1, and ended the season on an eight-game point streak, including both goals in St. Louis' 2-1 overtime victory on April 7 to spoil the Blackhawks' home finale. He's currently skating on the top line with two skilled forecheckers in Jaden Schwartz and Jori Lehtera, and stopping that line over the course of the series will require exceptional checking and defensive zone awareness whenever they're on the ice.
4. CAGE MATCH
Crawford's stat line on Saturday wasn't the most inspiring—20 saves on 25 shots—but considering it was his first competitive outing since March 14, a little rust was to be expected. The Blackhawks need him to showcase the midseason form that earned him Vezina chatter, especially on the road where St. Louis hopes to overwhelm the Blackhawks with their brand of physical, straight-line hockey. Crawford stopped of 201 of 215 Blues shots (.935 save percentage) in the 2014 first round, easily outdueling then-starter Ryan Miller, but St. Louis hopes to get a stronger performance from the tandem of Elliott and Allen, who backstopped the Blues to the fourth-best team defense this season (2.40 goals-against average, 197 goals allowed). Elliott's late-season form—including a streak of three consecutive shutouts—means he'll be the Blues' starter, but should he start to slip, the 25-year-old Allen is more than capable of taking the baton.
5. POWER STRUGGLE
Over the last two weeks of the regular season, the Blackhawks were able to right the ship in a crucial area: penalty killing. Although the return of PK specialist Marcus Kruger was just one factor that led to a 20-for-21 run to end the season, there's no doubt that Chicago has regained the confidence in that aspect of their team game, which has been a strength during all three championship runs under Quenneville.
"We rely on that being a big part of our team success," he told reporters on Monday. "Special teams can make the difference one way or the other, and we rely on our penalty killing to get us through some tough spots."
St. Louis boasted the sixth-ranked power play in the league this season, buoyed by their top unit, which includes Tarasenko's shooting prowess (12 goals), the net-front presence of Backes (8 goals) and the puck-moving skills of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (20 assists) and forward Alex Steen (19 helpers). The Blues were able to connect on four of 14 power-play opportunities in five regular-season tilts against Chicago, so staying out of the box can only help the Blackhawks.
THE FINAL WORD
Due to the many quirks of the NHL's playoff format, the first round is set to feature two teams that finished with the third- and fifth-best records during the regular season. Neither team needs extra motivation beyond the intense competition that has percolated over the years, but the Blues have a lot to prove after first-round exits to divisional rivals in each of the last two seasons. The Blackhawks have a well-structured, veteran forward group that has been through years of playoff battles together, but they'll need to prove they have the mettle to handle both the depth and the physicality that St. Louis brings each night. With Duncan Keith serving the last of a six-game suspension in Game 1, the Blackhawks will need a committed team effort on defense to prevent St. Louis from grabbing early momentum in what promises to be a contentious series.