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Round 1 Preview: Blues vs. Blackhawks

by Staff Writer / St. Louis Blues

The St. Louis Blues believe they have the talent and cohesion to be a serious threat in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A familiar foe, though, will have something to say about that.

The Blues (49-24-9, 107 points), who battled the Dallas Stars for the Central Division title and the top seed in the Western Conference until the penultimate day of the season, must get through the Chicago Blackhawks (47-26-9, 103 points), the defending Stanley Cup champion, to even entertain thoughts about a long run.

It was the same situation in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Blues thought they were on their way when they won the first two games, each in overtime. Instead, the Blackhawks won the next four, two more decided in overtime, and were the team to make the long run, losing Game 7 of the Western Conference Final to the Los Angeles Kings.

The series was a heavy affair with a lot of snarl that occasionally boiled over into something uglier. It also planted the seeds for what has been among the best rivalries in the past three seasons.

The big names from each side remain. For Chicago, forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were the four top scorers in the 2014 series, combining for 20 points. All are back this postseason, although Keith will miss Game 1 because of a suspension. For St. Louis, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was the high scorer with five points and forward Vladimir Tarasenko had four goals.

This season, they played five times and three of the games were decided after regulation and another was a one-goal game before an empty-net goal. The Blues won the series, 3-2.

It's anybody's guess what will happen when they meet again in this Western Conference First Round Series, but, it should be entertaining.

FORWARDS

Blues: When healthy, the Blues have as deep a forward lineup as any team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs because coach Ken Hitchcock utilizes his top nine in a majority of the situations.

Success for the forwards comes from getting pucks behind the defense and utilizing a heavy forecheck.

But health is a factor. Captain David Backes (lower-body injury) missed the final three regular-season games. Backes is a big, powerful forward who can play wing or center, take faceoffs, play in the slot on the power play and kill penalties.

Hitchcock relies heavily on left wing Alexander Steen, among the League leaders in shifts per game and minutes played among forwards.

The hottest line in recent weeks has been that of center Paul Stastny, left wing Robby Fabbri and right wing Troy Brouwer.

The "STL Line" with center Jori Lehtera, left wing Jaden Schwartz and Tarasenko led the way, but when the Blues can roll out another scoring line of Backes, center Patrik Berglund and Steen, they become unpredictable.

"That's what we get, chip-in; we don't have one that really dominates, but we're getting lots of good chip-ins," Hitchcock said. "We're getting it from three different lines, which is a real good sign. We haven't sat there and sat on one line and relied on one line to do it for us every night, every day. We get chip-ins from everybody and if we continue down that path, it's a good feeling."

Blackhawks: Any discussion begins with the second line, which features rookie left wing Artemi Panarin along with center Artem Anisimov and Kane.

The trio make up one of the NHL's most dangerous combinations. Kane led the League in scoring and surpassed 100 points for the first time in his NHL career. Panarin led all rookies in goals (30), assists (47) and points (77). Anisimov reached the 20-goal mark for the second time in his NHL career.

The problem is that a discussion about Chicago's forwards can often end with that group. The Blackhawks haven't fully restocked what they lost from the last season's championship roster. Adding left wing Andrew Ladd, forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise through trades before the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline helped, but will it be enough?

Chicago's puck possession lagged this season, and goal production from lines other than the second line took a nose dive.

Ladd has added spark to a top line that includes Toews and Marian Hossa, but those two players and that line went through some lengthy dry spells. Toews and Hossa, who has battled injury down the stretch, had the worst seasons of their NHL careers, and until Ladd arrived there wasn't a sure-fire answer to the departure of left wing Brandon Saad in an offseason trade.

The checking lines struggled to generate offense. Getting center Marcus Kruger back from an extended injury helped, but he's one piece of the puzzle. Last season, the third line for most of the playoffs included Patrick Sharp, Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen. Only Teravainen remains, and his offensive numbers were below expectations.

DEFENSEMEN

Blues: Solid defense has been a staple of Hitchcock-coached teams since he took over St. Louis in 2011.

The Blues have been one of the stingiest teams in terms of goals-allowed per game, and playing a structured, turnover-free, puck-possession game starts at the back end.

The Blues have trusted rookies Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson, two players who weren't guaranteed to be among the top six when the season started, to be important players.

"Parayko obviously is a guy that we count on [at] both ends of the rink and [Edmundson] is hard to play against," Hitchcock said. "They provide us with a competitive edge that's necessary to win games.

"I think they're rookies in name only. That's probably the biggest compliment you can make. They play significant minutes. We trust them. They're in an envious position where they get to play all the time, which a lot of young guys don't. Then there's an accountability factor where we have high expectations because they're not fourth-line players or they're not necessarily third-pair defense all the time. They play against a lot of good players. We count on them. It's a feather in their cap that they've shown the maturity."

Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester lead the team in minutes played and are the team's top-pairing, and Kevin Shattenkirk provides the Blues with offense while playing with a durable, defensive-oriented Carl Gunnarsson.

Blackhawks: The good news is three of four veterans who were leaned upon heavily during the 2015 playoffs are still around. The bad news is that Johnny Oduya isn't.

Oduya, who signed with the Dallas Stars, formed a key shutdown defensive pairing with Niklas Hjalmarsson for much of his time in Chicago (2012-15). His role at left point on the second pairing hasn't been filled adequately.

The Blackhawks have shuffled several players through that spot, playing with Brent Seabrook, but none fully took advantage of the opportunity.

Trevor Van Riemsdyk, playing his first full NHL season after an injury-plagued rookie year, appears to be the top option for that role in the playoffs. Others who have gotten a look include rookies Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg, along with veteran Christian Ehrhoff.

The Blackhawks cycled through veterans Trevor Daley and Rob Scuderi on the third pairing, as well, before each was traded.

Hjalmarsson has played most of the season with Keith on the top pairing, but Keith will miss Game 1, serving the final game of a six-game suspension. Keith, who missed a month earlier in the season because of minor knee surgery, had another solid year offensively. Defensively, the two-time Norris Trophy winner and 2015 Conn Smythe winner saw his possession numbers take a hit while starting more in the defensive zone with Hjalmarsson, a defensive shutdown specialist.

The Blackhawks can always put Keith back with his long-time partner, Seabrook, but coach Joel Quenneville didn't do it all season and seems reluctant to make that switch.

GOALTENDERS

Blues: The decision to start either Brian Elliott or Jake Allen in goal was made much easier for Hitchcock when Allen was shut down the final three games of the regular season because of a lower-body injury.

Allen missed 17 games from Jan. 8-Feb. 22 with a knee injury, but both goalies have provided the Blues with big games this season.

"The way these guys keep their head down and keep working, I think that's why we're comfortable playing either goalie," Stastny said. "I think it's that internal competition that can be bad for you and sometimes it can be good. These two guys have found a way to make it competitive on a good standpoint that benefits the team."

Blackhawks: Heading into the stretch run, this area was arguably the Blackhawks' biggest strength. Corey Crawford put together a career-best season and became even more important than he had already been.

The Blackhawks' dip in puck possession put them on the defensive side more often, which put a lot of pressure on Crawford. Usually he was up to the challenge, despite soaking up the vast majority of playing time. Crawford then missed more than three weeks with an upper-body injury.

Crawford's ability to quickly regain his puck-tracking and timing will be something to monitor. If there isn't too much rust, Crawford could have a big impact on Chicago's effort to not only win the series, but repeat as champions. Likewise, if he can't get back up to speed quickly, it could put them in a tough spot.

The flip side is how Crawford's injury allowed backup Scott Darling to regain his form in the final month of the regular season. Darling played sporadically prior to Crawford getting hurt, which affected his play and his confidence. Darling is now better prepared if needed in the playoffs.

COACHES

Blues: Hitchcock is on a one-year contract and is looking to get St. Louis beyond the first round; he has one playoff series victory in St. Louis with a 10-17 record.

But this was arguably Hitchcock's most challenging and successful regular season because of the slew of injuries to key players. Still, St. Louis pushed Dallas to the last game of the season before losing the Central Division crown and the top seed in the West. The Blues finished with 107 points, third most in the League.

"This was a real challenge. It was a challenge where I think without an experienced coaching staff, this could have gone off the rails, and you see it with other teams; it went off the rails," Hitchcock said. "I think our experience at knowing that two goals or even at times, one goal has to get you points and the way to manage the game and manage the players that way really helped because we got points in games where we didn't score. We got points in games where we weren't the best team but we had frustrated the opposition, and I think that comes from experience.

"That's what I'm proud of. I'm proud of the players, but I'm really proud of the coaching staff because we managed a very difficult time with a lot of players missing in a very direct and I think concise way and it got us points when other teams, it didn't get them."

Blackhawks: Each offseason, Chicago goes through roster turnover that removes a number of key players from the group that's won three championships in six seasons.

This offseason was the most tumultuous turnover since Chicago won the Cup in 2010, which presented Blackhawks coaches with arguably their most difficult challenge.

Despite losing Saad, Sharp, Oduya, Vermette and Brad Richards, Quenneville and his assistants kept Chicago among the NHL's elite. They did it with a roster that has rookies and new faces surrounding the core group of top players.

Quenneville, who passed Al Arbour for the second-most coaching wins in NHL history and reached the 800-win milestone this season, heads into the postseason looking to win the Stanley Cup for the fourth time. The playoffs are where Quenneville shines brightest. His mastery of the matchup game with forward lines and defense pairings often give the Blackhawks a big advantage.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Blues: If it comes down to the power play or penalty kill, the Blues feel like they'll be in good hands.

The power play can strike at any time. Leading scorer Tarasenko anchors the top unit with Lehtera, Backes, when healthy, and point men Steen and Shattenkirk. Stastny, Pietrangelo, Parayko, Schwartz and Brouwer provide a secondary unit that has produced well.

The penalty kill was upgraded with the additions of Kyle Brodziak and Scottie Upshall in the offseason, and Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester are the top pair of defensemen on the penalty kill.

Blackhawks: None of the Blackhawks' three championship teams were dominant with the man advantage, despite possessing an overload of high-end skill.

But things turned around this season when assistant coach Kevin Dineen installed a new setup in the offensive zone on the power play. Chicago went from a standard setup with two point men at the blue line to more of a 1-3-1, with strong passers stationed in the middle of the slot. Combined with keeping Panarin, Anisimov and Kane together on the top unit, it worked. Chicago rose to the top of the NHL rankings and stayed there most of the season.

Toews, Hossa, Ladd, Teravainen and a defenseman of Dineen's choosing form the second group, which can be just as effective.

Chicago's penalty-killing tumbled in the rankings mid-season after Kruger and Hossa were injured, but each returned and the Blackhawks added good penalty-killers in Ladd and Tomas Fleischmann before the NHL Trade deadline.

SERIES CHANGERS

Blues: Paul Stastny, forward -- The Blues believe Stastny can be the big point producer they've lacked in the playoffs.

"I've got to tell you, it's really impressive the way Paul's playing right now," Hitchcock said. "His conscience on the ice and that line has been terrific. It's been effective offensively, it's been effective defensively. [Stastny] has really elevated his game to another level, which is really, really good to see."

The Blues are hoping to get the Stastny of 2014, who had 10 points in a seven-game series for the Colorado Avalanche against the Minnesota Wild. Last season, in a first-round loss to Minnesota, he had one goal in six games.

Blackhawks: Marian Hossa, forward -- If anybody is primed for a market correction in his career statistics, it's Hossa. His impact defensively is top notch, but a guy who's topped 40-plus goals three times and 30-plus seven times in 18 NHL seasons is riding a two-year dry spell.

Hossa, who had 30 goals in 2013-14, scored 13 this season (in 64 games) and 22 in 82 games last season.

Hossa shot a career-low 6.8 percent this season and heads into the playoffs stuck on 499 career NHL goals. He shot 8.9 percent in 2014-15, and his percentages the past two postseasons were even worse (5.8 percent in 2015 and 2.7 percent in 2014).

WILL WIN IF ...

Blues: They can get timely scoring.

It's been a sore spot the past three seasons after the Blues scored 10 goals in six games against the Los Angeles Kings in 2013 (1.66 goals per game), 14 in six games against the Chicago Blackhawks in 2014 (2.33 goals per game) and 14 in six games against the Wild last season.

The Blues' goaltending has been relatively solid, but their key offensive players must come through.

Tarasenko scored six of the Blues' 14 goals against the Wild last season, but the Blues received single goals from Schwartz, Steen, Backes and Stastny. None of their defensemen scored a goal.

Blackhawks: Crawford can get back to top form in a hurry.

It seems like Chicago can just "flip a switch" once the playoffs begin and take it to another level, but it's hard to see that happening this time. The Blackhawks have struggled with puck possession all season, and that's not likely to change in the playoffs.

The puck is probably going to stay in the Blackhawks' defensive zone for long stretches, and Crawford will have to make some big saves to keep it out of his net.

If Crawford is in peak form, it helps cover the Blackhawks' flaws during 5-on-5 play and allows them to win games off their strong special teams and ability to counter-punch.

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