ST. LOUIS – The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues won’t be trading Christmas cards come this holiday season.
Based on the games these two teams have had in recent seasons, you have a pretty good idea how the series is going to go. It’s going to be physical. It’s going to be tight. It’s going to be entertaining. And it’s going to be done with no love lost between the two squads.
On Thursday night, all the pre-series talk stops and the puck drops. But before the Blues and Blackhawks square off in Game 1 of their series, let’s break down a few categories and see how each team stacks up:
We all know what the Blackhawks have, especially when they’re rolling: it’s four lines, all contributing something to the success of this team. The top-six talent is tremendous; they bring speed, they bring skill and they bring a lot of goals. Patrick Sharp scored 34 goals this season just one short of the career-high 35 he set a few seasons ago. Marian Hossa scored 30 goals, his eighth NHL season with 30 or more.
[MORE: Handzus looking for another big postseason performance]
Meanwhile, St. Louis isn’t lacking in great forwards either. Once a team that struggled to score, the Blues now have forwards like Alex Steen had a team-leading 33 goals this regular season, David Backes was next with 27 and Jaden Schwartz added 25. This is a tight category between the two, but we’ll go with the Cup champs on this one.
It’s another category in which the Blackhawks are deep. Duncan Keith is in the Norris Trophy talk once again while Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya have been a strong shutdown pair.
The Blues are tough here, too. Alex Pietrangelo has also been given Norris consideration and, in this writer’s opinion, Jay Bouwmeester is one of the more underrated defensemen in the league. He just goes about his business and plays steady games. The Blues’ second pair, Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk, is also dependable.
Corey Crawford faced incredible pressure entering the 2012-13 season and answered it by winning his first Stanley Cup. Guess what? He still has pressure on him. For the ups and downs he’s had this season, Crawford nevertheless has a 2.26 goals-against average (ninth in the NHL). His save percentage of .917 isn’t quite as good, however, putting him 22nd in the league.
[ALSO: Role players will be critical in postseason]
The Blues made the big, splashy trade ahead of the deadline in acquiring Ryan Miller. The 33-year-old Miller, freed from Buffalo, now plays in front of a strong team with a defense to match. Miller struggled as much as the rest of the Blues down the stretch, going 0-0 with a GAA of around 3.80. Granted, the Blues were decimated by injuries around that time, but Miller will have plenty of pressure on him to help right the Blues’ ship. Can he do it?
Well, the Blackhawks’ power play is nowhere near as bad as it was in the 2012-13 season. It started off strong and stayed that way through the first half of the season. After the Olympic break, however, it dropped off a bit and finished the regular season ranked 10th in the NHL; still not bad.
The Blues have fared a little better in this department. We haven’t watched their power play all season, which was ranked 7th overall. The few times we did, however, it looked like theirs was more about taking shots than passing, the latter of which the Blackhawks do too often.
Remember what we said about the Blackhawks’ power play starting strong, finishing so-so? Pretty much reverse that, and we’re talking about their power play. When the 82 games were finished, the Blackhawks’ kill was 19th overall in the league. Before you complain, remember: it started something horrible. The Blues, meanwhile, started great and have continued to be great on it (2nd in the NHL). In this category, they’re looking like the 2012-13 Blackhawks.
[RELATED: Roenick says series will be a flip of the coin]
Both teams had their late-season share in this department. The Blackhawks were missing Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, yet went 4-2 without them. The big question with these two is, how will they react in Game 1? Will they be rusty or ready to go? Toews, we’re guessing, will be the latter. Kane’s healthy, but you have to wonder if it takes him some time to adjust to that knee brace.
As stated above, the Blues were battered down the stretch. In their regular-season finale against Detroit, they were missing nine regulars. Nine. Most will be back at some point in this series. How healthy will they be, and, depending on injury, how will they rebound? It’s the playoffs, and everyone plays through something, but that’s a high number of guys playing through something.