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Blackhawks Thu Apr 17 2014
It seems a little surreal that the NHL playoffs are set to begin, considering how quickly the Blackhawks arrived here after an even more surreal ending to last season. But nevertheless, the postseason is upon us and head coach Joel Quenneville's squad is set to open the first round in St. Louis against the Blues at the Scottrade Center for Game 1.
The Hawks finished the season 46-21-15 at 107 points, which earned them the fourth-best point total in the Western Conference, a rather surprising position considering they were the second-highest scoring team in the league with 3.18 goals per game and twelfth in goals against with 2.58.
By comparison, the Blues were seventh in the league in scoring at 2.92 goals per game and third at goals against per game at 2.29. But all that matters now is which team will hold it together and stay consistent over a longer period of games that either could go as quickly as five or as grueling as seven
A few weeks ago, all signs pointed towards a matchup between the Hawks and Colorado Avalanche in the first round, but since the Blues managed only to win three out of their last ten games, including six straight losses to close out the season, the Avs leapt over Ken Hitchcock's squad to take the higher seed. This seemed improbable back on Friday, February 28, when the Blues acquired goalie Ryan Miller (and Steve Ott) in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres for Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, William Carrier and a few draft picks.
The Miller trade spoke volumes that Blues general manager Doug Armstrong meant business, and the rest of the league took notice, especially Hawks fans. The statement was clear, and it read that the Blues were willing to make a splash at the trade deadline if it meant sacrificing payroll and some picks for winning now.
With that said, the season played out, T.J. Oshie became a household name in Sochi, and then the Blues came back down to earth. Meanwhile, the Hawks battled through two key injuries in captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane while the rest of the team managed to overcome the missing duo and play at a high level.
So what to watch for in this opening round -- the Hawks' second title defense in four years -- may come down to both teams trying to regain composure after facing a little adversity. For sure Toews and Kane are rested and ready to go. The only question is will they take a while to find their groove (not very likely) or be able to pick right back up where they left off (highly probable)?
During practice skates leading up to the series, Quenneville played around a little with the lines as a way to get a look at what might work in the first game. According to Comcast Sportsnet's Tracey Myers (@TramyersCSN), the last two practices saw the following lines:
Two interesting pieces there: the first is Kane on the third line. It's been no secret that the slow-moving Handzus hampered Kane's play on the second line for most of the season. His point production slipped, which was cause for some close games. If you're unable to keep up with him, odds are you're not going to be open when the puck gets to you. Being paired with Shaw and Bickell could prove to be a good move, considering Shaw, even for some of his bone-headed plays at times, is a talent in finding the open space and has quick hands.
The other point is the placement of Bollig over Jeremy Morin. Yes, the Blues are a physical team, but fighting and retaliating in the postseason isn't as prevalent as it in the regular season, regardless as to how silly that is. It would seem that playing Bollig, who only has three more points (seven goals, seven assists for 14 points) over Morin (five goals, six assists for 11 points) might not be the best tactic for Quenneville. This is considering Morin's recent play and the fact that his production came in 58 less games.
The Blues were rather beat up lately with Oshie (concussion), Patrik Berglund (shoulder), Barret Jackman (lower body), Brenden Morrow (foot), Alex Pietrangelo, Barret Jackman (lower body), David Backes (lower body), Vladimir Tarasenko (right hand) and Vladimir Sobotka all ailing from injuries. Word is they all will be ready to play for Game 1, even if its limited action.
The Hawks went 2-1-2 against the Blues during the regular season, which didn't start off so great back on Wednesday, October 9. The Hawks (Brent Seabrook) carelessly gave the puck away to Alexander Steen who scored the game-winning goal with only 22 seconds remaining in regulation and lost by the final of 3-2. Then, it was back-to-back losses in OT before finally winning the last two games of the season, one of which, a 4-2 final, that was part of the Blues' recent collapse.
Another key component for the Hawks will be the recent rest of Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa. Keith is well on his way to winning the Norris Trophy, and Hossa has quietly had a superb season, scoring 30 goals and notching 30 assists for 60 points. Both saw limited action the last two games of the year with Keith a healthy scratch for both games and Hossa playing a combined 25 minutes, 27 seconds of ice time.
The Hawks' power play was better than last season, ending the year at 19.5 percent, tenth best in the league. The Blues were slightly better at 19.8 percent on the extra-man advantage with Backes leading the team with 10 goals (Patrick Sharp and Kane each had 10).
The penalty kill, however, is a different story. The Blues were second best in the league at killing off 85.7 percent of their opponents' chances, while the Hawks were nineteenth at 81.4 percent. There's more shot blocking in the playoffs, and the Hawks did an admirable job at killing the penalty in last year's postseason at just over 90 percent, so perhaps it'll be something on which they can build.
Lastly, there's the home-ice advantage, which really, there is none. Hawks fans travel very well, and it's been proven time and time again that home ice, while convenient, isn't what wins hockey games.
Providing the Hawks can keep their heads up against this physical team and keep their composure, the Blues might not have enough gas to keep up with them. Of course anything can happen in the postseason, but look for the Hawks to take one of the first two in St. Louis and then win out to clinch it in five. And if Toews and Kane hit a groove, Sharp and Bickell get hot like they did last year, and Morin and Smith continuing their breakouts and Crawford playing consistently, it could even be done in four.