How the Chicago Blackhawks Stack Up vs. Other Western Conference Contenders

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2014

How the Chicago Blackhawks Stack Up vs. Other Western Conference Contenders

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    Tony Avelar

    The Chicago Blackhawks have struggled to match the performance they had just one year ago when they set records during the regular season and went on to win their second Stanley Cup in four years.

    A lack of consistency over the second half of the season has raised eyebrows and injuries to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have had a limiting impact on the Blackhawks' ability to string wins together.

    The playoffs are just days away from starting, and the Blackhawks' past achievements matter little. They will have to raise their recent level of play in order to survive and advance in the tough Western Conference.

     Here's how they stack up compared to their top rivals.

Colorado Avalanche

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    Charles Rex Arbogast

    Blackhawks' Advantages

    While the Avalanche could still possibly catch St. Louis and win the Central Division, Chicago and Colorado have appeared to be on a collision course for a first-round matchup for several weeks.

    The Blackhawks are expecting both Toews and Kane to return for the postseason, and that gives head coach Joel Quenneville's team a sizable edge in experience and a history of success. 

    The Blackhawks know they can win in the playoffs, and even though Colorado has earned a 4-1 edge in regular-season meetings, the Blackhawks should be quite confident because they have proven they can score at key moments, while the Avs are playoff newcomers.

    The combination of Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook means that the Blackhawks have the depth to support their superstars as they return from injuries.

    Blackhawks' Disadvantages

    The Avs started the season on a hot streak, and that gave rookie head coach Patrick Roy's team the confidence to succeed this season. Roy deserves full credit, because the Avs were skating in circles prior to the 2013-14 season. 

    The Avs are one of the best skating teams in the NHL, and that speed could cause problems for the Blackhawks even though that is also one of their attributes. They have several explosive players in Ryan O'Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny who are capable of manufacturing big goals.

    However, the loss of Matt Duchene to a knee injury will hinder their chances of advancing to the next round.

    Semyon Varlamov (40-14-6, 2.41 goals-against average, .927 save percentage) has become one of the top goaltenders in the league, and he has had a somewhat better season than Corey Crawford (31-15-10, 2.22 GAA, .918 save percentage).

St. Louis Blues

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    Bill Boyce

    Blackhawks' Advantages 

    A matchup with the Blues is likely if Chicago can survive its opening-round playoff series, and the Blues do the same.

    The Blues have been at or near the top of the NHL's regular-season standings all season because of their physical defensive play, clutch scoring and goaltending, which has improved with the addition of Ryan Miller at the trade deadline.

    However, while the Blues appear to be a better offensive team than they have been in recent years, they are not as creative or as explosive as the Blackhawks when Chicago has a fully healthy team. The Blues have had recent problems putting the puck in the net, as they have scored four goals in their last four games going into their Tuesday night home game with the Capitals.

    The Blackhawks want to get out in front early and make the Blues attempt to play catch-up hockey.

    Blackhawks' Disadvantages 

    The Blues are tough, nasty and physical. They have punished opponents all season long and they want to play that way against the Blackhawks.

    Chicago does not want to play grind-it-out hockey against St. Louis or Los Angeles. The Blackhawks would put up a battle, but they don't have the physical strength to compete with players like David Backes, Alex Steen, Kevin Shattenkirk, Roman Polak and Jay Bouwmeester in a seven-game series.

    Miller was the Blues' prized acquistion at the trade deadline. While he is looked at as one of the best goalies in the league, he has not led his team to a victory in a playoff series since 2006-07. Still, he appears to have an edge over Crawford.

Anaheim Ducks

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    Alex Gallardo

    Blackhawks' Advantages

    While the Anaheim Ducks have had an excellent regular season, it appears they were a better team earlier in the year than they are as the playoffs beckon.

    They have been quite ordinary down the stretch, compiling an 8-6-3 record. They have stumbled at home. going 5-6-3 in their last 14 games at the Honda Center. That's not championship-caliber hockey.

    The Blackhawks should be able to take advantage of the Ducks' ordinary penalty kill. They rank 17th in that department as opponents score on 18.5 percent of their power-play chances against them. Since the Blackhawks score on 20.0 percent of their power-play opportunities, this should be an area where Quenneville's team has the edge.

    Additionally, no Bruce Boudreau-coached team has ever advanced past the second round of the playoffs. 

    Blackhawks' Disadvantages 

    The Ducks are big, fast, strong, skilled and powerful. If the Blackhawks want to get into a skating game with them, the Ducks will be happy to oblige. 

    There's no way the Blackhawks want to get into a hitting game with the Ducks, because they have size and strength and will play with an edge when they are at their best.

    The Blackhawks will have a big problem containing the high-scoring duo of Ryan Getzlaf (31 goals, 55 assists) and Corey Perry (42 goals, 38 assists) in a seven-game series.

    The return of defenseman Cam Fowler (knee) to full health will give the Ducks a key edge.

Los Angeles Kings

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    Alex Brandon

    Blackhawks' Advantages 

    If the Blackhawks meet the Kings in the postseason, they will want to turn the series into one that features several high-scoring games.

    This is the Blackhawks' strength and the Kings' overall weakness. The Blackhawks have scored 259 goals, while the Kings have lit the lamp just 197 times. The only likely Western Conference playoff team that has scored fewer goals is the Minnesota Wild

    Jeff Carter (27 goals) and Anze Kopitar (25 goals, 65 points) are capable of taking over any game, but the Kings just don't have the consistent scoring up front to match the Blackhawks' offensive capabilities over a seven-game series.

    Blackhawks' Disadvantages 

    The Kings will have the edge if they can turn the series into a low-scoring, hard-hitting battle. The Kings are a tough, physical team that would like to move the action into the corners, where they can punish the Blackhawks with a lot of hard hitting. 

    Goalie Jonathan Quick (27-17-2, 2.02 GAA, .918 save percentage) is a better goalie than Crawford and he would like to pay the Blackhawks back after they eliminated the Kings last year in the Western Conference Final. The Kings might have the intangible edge simply because they will be playing with revenge in mind.

San Jose Sharks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez

    Blackhawks' Advantages 

    While the San Jose Sharks have been one of the best and most consistent regular-season teams for the last decade, their lack of playoff success has been painful. This will be their 10th consecutive season as a playoff team, and the Sharks have never made it out of the Western Conference. They have been bounced out of the playoffs in the first or second round six of the last eight years.

    The Blackhawks' past playoff success could help them more in a series against the Sharks than perhaps any other opponent. The Blackhawks have a swagger that comes with winning two of the last four Stanley Cups, while the Sharks have had their hearts stomped on so many times that it will be difficult to dig deep and come out on top.

    Additionally, the Blackhawks have a stronger power play than the Sharks. Chicago is connecting on 20.0 percent (seventh in the NHL) of its man-advantage opportunities, while the Sharks are scoring on 17.4 percent of their chances (17th).

    Blackhawks' Disadvantages 

    The Sharks are a tough, hard-nosed physical team with the skill to score goals in bunches when they are hot. While it's unlikely at that point, they could still find a way to take first place in the Pacific Division away from the Ducks.

    The Sharks have players like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau who can make a real difference when the game is on the line. Thornton's postseason productivity has been marred by a couple of poor series in his career (both with Boston and San Jose), but he is dangerous when he is healthy and can score early in the series.

    Antti Niemi (38-16-7, 2.37 GAA, .914 save percentage) has been solid in goal. While the Blackhawks might argue that Crawford is better than Niemi, the Sharks would not concede that point.