Each Wednesday throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the game that intrigues him most that night. Weekes also will be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
It's the best time of the year. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are back! It's the best two months in sports and it all starts Wednesday with three games.
Of the three series beginning, the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, SN360, FS-MW, CSN-CH) is the most intriguing to me. The Central Division rivals played five times this season, with the Blues winning three games. The Blues came back from down 5-2 in the first period to win 6-5 in overtime Nov. 4 at United Center, won 3-2 in a shootout March 9 at Scottrade Center, and won 2-1 in overtime at United Center on April 7 when Vladimir Tarasenko scored with 1:16 left in the third period to tie the game and then won it with a goal in overtime.
But what likely has stuck with the Blues is having a 2-0 series lead against the Blackhawks in the 2014 Western Conference First Round but losing in six games.
Chicago, which finished third in the division with 103 points, is the defending Cup champion. St. Louis, which was second with 107 points, is trying to get out of the first round for the first time since 2012.
Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Patrick Kane had an NHL-best 106 points to become the first American-born player to win the scoring title, which is incredible considering there were so many great American players who have helped build the game. Along with linemates Artemi Panarin (30 goals, 77 points) and Artem Anisimov (20 goals, 42 points), the three have been incredible. I think the Blackhawks will have the Hart Trophy winner and Calder Trophy winner on the same line, let alone the same team.
Despite losing its final two games of the regular season, Chicago got its game back down the stretch, scoring 17 goals in three wins prior.
The Blackhawks are in relatively good health. Goaltender Corey Crawford returned for the final game of the season after missing 11 games, and forward Marian Hossa is back after dealing with a knee injury. And let's not forget defenseman Duncan Keith, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner from last season, will return from his suspension for Game 2 of the series.
Video: CHI@CBJ: Kane nets 250th goal nine seconds into game
Minuses: The Blues are a heavy and physical team, and the Blackhawks don't really have anything to match that. The Blackhawks aren't a physical team and don't throw their bodies around much.
The Blackhawks also need their penalty kill to be better. It was 22nd in the regular season (80.3 percent) and allowed at least one power-play goal in 36 games. The penalty kill was ranked lower for most of the season but they killed 20 of their final 21 shorthanded situations in the final eight games. The Blues ranked sixth in power-play percentage at 21.5 percent, so this will be a huge part of this game and this series.
Pluses: St. Louis managed to have an amazing season in spite of the injuries it's had, and there were many. Goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jake Allen missed time, as did forwards Robby Fabbri, Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund and Jaden Schwartz, and defensemen Carl Gunnarsson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. But the Blues still finished in second place in the Central Division.
Tarasenko was fourth in the League with 40 goals. He scored two against the Blackhawks in the second-to-last game of the regular season. He had five goals and seven points in five games against Chicago.
The Blues have a really good, mobile defense corps with tons of depth. It was tested because of injuries, but it's one of the best in the League. Colton Parayko had nine goals and 33 points in 79 games, and led the Blues and all rookies with a plus-28 rating.
Their goalie tandem has been great. Elliott went 23-8-6 with a 2.07 goals-against average and League-leading .930 save percentage in 42 games. Allen went 26-15-3 with a 2.35 GAA and .920 save percentage in 47 games. Each has done the job when called upon.
Video: STL@COL: Parayko beats Varlamov through a screen
Minuses: The Blues have had good teams before but they have yet to go on a deep playoff run. They have lost in the first round three straight years. The last time they advanced past the first round was 2012, when they were swept by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round. The Blues haven't finished lower than second in the division in five seasons, and now they must prove the regular season was no fluke.
St. Louis doesn't have as much star power up front as Chicago. It has Tarasenko, but he's really their only difference maker. Chicago has Kane, Hossa, Panarin, Jonathan Toews, etc. Those players single-handedly can take over a game.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Physical play. Will the Blues play a physical game, forcing the Blackhawks to have to earn their ice?
2. Which line for the Blues will be matched against the Blackhawks' line of Kane, Panarin and Anisimov?
3. How will the Blackhawks defend against the Blues, who have defensemen that can move the puck well?