Scoreboard watching: it becomes pretty commonplace at this time of the NHL season. Whether you’re already set for the postseason or one of the bubble teams battling with others for those final spots, everyone has their eyes on the remaining regular-season games.
Count the Chicago Blackhawks among those likely watching. Because just when you thought it was safe to assume the Blackhawks would play the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, the Avs and St. Louis Blues gone in opposite directions and now it’s up in the air.
St. Louis, which has lost three games in a row, plays at Minnesota Thursday night. The Blues will be without captain David Backes, who St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Jeremy Rutherford reported is currently wearing a walking boot; Backes was hit by teammate Alex Steen’s shot against Washington the other night. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told Rutherford that Backes “could” be ready for the playoffs. Meanwhile, Colorado, which has won seven of its last eight games, plays Vancouver late this evening.
A few folks asked me this earlier today on Twitter: would the Blackhawks rather play the Blues or the Avs? A good question about two tough opponents. We’re guessing players will say it doesn’t matter; it’s all about what the Blackhawks do, not their opponent. But since there’s time to kill on the flight and before scoreboard watching commences this evening, let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages the Blackhawks would have against both teams:
IF THE BLACKHAWKS PLAY COLORADO…
If you’re judging how a team would do against another based on the regular-season series, then this does not favor the Blackhawks. But I’m hesitant to do that. The regular season and the playoffs, as we all know, are two very different beasts.
Still, the Avalanche have their obvious strengths: they’re young, they’ve played through injuries and done just fine and they have one stellar goaltender in Semyon Varlamov, who won four decisions vs. Chicago this season. The only game the Blackhawks won was on Dec. 27 (a 7-2 victory) when Jean-Sebastien Giguere was in net and the Avs, thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, had to fly into Chicago the day of the game and didn’t skate that morning.
So what’s the Blackhawks’ biggest edge in this series? I say playoff experience. Yes, Colorado has been stellar; this turnaround season could be the start of their return to perennial postseason appearances. But Colorado’s been to the playoffs just once in the last five seasons. Considering how young this team is, there could be a wide-eyed approach to the playoffs for some of these players. Meanwhile, a missed postseason is a foreign concept to just about everyone on the Blackhawks roster.
IF THE BLACKHAWKS PLAY ST. LOUIS…
There’s a whole section of the fan base that’s cringing at the thought of this matchup; or at least it was until the Blackhawks won the last two games, and did so in pretty convincing fashion.
Again, we’re not saying that means the Blackhawks will automatically stem the early season tide against the Blues and beat them in the postseason. Still, there’s something to be said for gaining confidence against an opponent. The Blackhawks desperately needed that against the Blues, who dominated their matchup prior to the past two outings.
Yes, the Blues have a strong goaltender in Ryan Miller. But let’s not act like St. Louis’ goaltending situation was such a problem before it traded for him. It was already pretty good.
St. Louis is big, physical and, much like Colorado – and the Blackhawks lately – has played well through injury issues. There’s no doubt the Blues will throw their weight around, and this is a department in which the Blackhawks are still lacking. If it comes down to that, it could be trouble.
No matter who the Blackhawks play it promises to be an entertaining series. That’s what you get when great teams face their counterparts. Until then, have fun scoreboard watching.