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Blues vs. Blackhawks: Preview and Prediction for NHL Playoffs 2014 Matchup

Steve MacfarlaneFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2014

Blues vs. Blackhawks: Preview and Prediction for NHL Playoffs 2014 Matchup

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues would have been popular picks for second- or third-round combatants just a few short weeks ago, but they literally stumbled into a first-round matchup against each other.

    It's unfortunate that one of the Western Conference powerhouses will be eliminated so quickly, but both played their way out of a potential opening series against a wild-card team and into the division battle with a rocky finish.

    Still, there is a lot to like about the meeting. Both goaltenders have question marks. Both teams have had key injuries to deal with. They're among the best offenses in the entire league and play strong in their own end as well.

    Read on to see what factors will come into play and who is more likely to come out on top.

     

    All statistics are courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted.

Regular-Season Recap

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    Mark Humphrey

    Blues: 52-23-7, 111 points, second place in Central Division

    The Blues looked like they were on their way to a Presidents' Trophy until a late-season slide saw them fall out of first in the conference and the division. They're literally limping into the playoffs with injuries to more than half the top 12 forwards, including Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Tarasenko, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Derek Roy, Vladimir Sobotka and Brenden Morrow. The bad luck led to five straight losses to finish the regular-season schedule and bump them below the Anaheim Ducks and Colorado Avalanche in the standings.

    Despite a concussion that knocked him out of nearly a quarter of his season, Alex Steen paced the Blues with 33 goals and 62 points in 68 games. Five players scored at least 20 goals and seven totaled at least 40 points. They shored up the goaltending position at the trade deadline, dealing for Ryan Miller and shipping out Jaroslav Halak.

     

    Blackhawks: 46-21-15, 107 points, third place in Central Division

    There was no Stanley Cup hangover for the defending champion last fall. The Blackhawks came out strong, earning a 20-4-4 record over the first two months to lead the league with 44 points heading into December. The Olympic break seemed to stunt their momentum, however, and they fell out of the running for the division title by going 11-10-1 the rest of the way.

    Patrick Kane was a point-per-game player but missed time with a knee injury, leaving Patrick Sharp as the regular-season leader with 78 points in 82 games. The team still boasts plenty of scoring depth, including a 60-point season from Duncan Keith.

Schedule and TV Info

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    Tom Gannam
    Thursday, April 178 p.m. (ET)Chicago at St. LouisNBCSN, CBC
    Saturday, April 193 p.m. (ET)Chicago at St. LouisNBC, CBC
    Monday, April 218:30 p.m. (ET)St. Louis at ChicagoCNBC, CBC
    Wednesday, April 239:30 p.m. (ET)St. Louis at ChicagoNBCSN, CBC
    *Friday, April 258 p.m. (ET)Chicago at St. LouisNBCSN, CBC
    *Sunday, April 273 p.m. (ET)St. Louis at ChicagoNBC, CBC
    *Tuesday, April 29TBDChicago at St. LouisCBC

    *If necessary.

Key Storylines

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    Ann Heisenfelt

    Someone call a doctor: David Backes and T.J. Oshie are expected to return in time for Thursday's opening game, according to Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but there are still plenty of walking wounded for the Blues, who will have to rely on guys like Ty Rattie and Magnus Paajarvi to fill in with a little offense and not hurt the Blues defensively. On the other side, Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times says Jonathan Toews should be ready to play while Patrick Kane's status is still up in the air.

    Can the Hawks take flight again?: Ten members of each team headed to Sochi for the Olympic Winter Games. But the Blackhawks looked like a tired team down the stretch. It could be due to the championship run that started last spring and the condensed schedule that preceded it because of the lockout. The Hawks, who iced much of the same team that won it all in 2013, have played a lot of hockey over the past 15 months.

    Battle behind the bench: Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock and Blackhawks bench boss Joel Quenneville are widely regarded as two of the best minds in the business. How they handle matching lines, motivating their players and keeping focus on the details that got their teams to where they are will be even tougher now with injuries and fatigue setting in.

Players to Watch

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    Charles Rex Arbogast

    Calling on Kane: Patrick Kane is excited to be back in action for the playoffs after sitting out nearly a month after spraining his knee in a contest against the Blues on March 19. The 25-year-old was a point-per-game player through 69 outings, but the year was a bit of a disappointment given the injury and some high preseason expectations of the dynamic Hawks playmaker.

    Alex Steen: The sniper hit a new level this season, potting 33 goals in 68 games. Steen scored 24 of those in his first 35 games before suffering a concussion. The 30-year-old bounced back and finished with 62 points—still a career high in both categories. With all the injuries, Steen will have to be a factor for the Blues to keep pace with the Blackhawks' offensive production.

Goaltender Breakdown

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It's Miller Time: After finding himself leaving the league's worst team to join one of its best, Ryan Miller looked like the answer to the question of what the Blues need to take them to the next level in the playoffs. The 33-year-old won six of his first seven games. But the wheels fell off down the stretch, with Miller winning just three of his last 11 starts. The former Buffalo Sabres backstop needs to be a difference-maker for the battered Blues, or things could get ugly early.

    Make them eat crow: Corey Crawford is a Stanley Cup winner playing for one of the best teams in the league. He may not be an elite netminder, but he doesn't have to be for the Blackhawks to defend the Cup. Although his .917 save percentage is decent enough, he battles inconsistency, and that's the one thing he needs to avoid for the Hawks going forward. The Blues are opportunists when it comes to scoring and can clamp down if they get a lead, so the better Crawford plays in the early stages of games, the better the Hawks' chances of drawing first blood and taking control.

Biggest Mismatch

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The penalty kill was far superior for the Blues this season.

    They killed off 85.7 percent of all penalties to sit second in the NHL in that statistic. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, were 19th in the league with an 81.4 percent success rate.

    What does that mean? For the Blackhawks, it means they need to be a more dominant team in five-on-five action rather than count on collecting goals on special teams. And with the seventh-ranked power play, the Blues may be able to make a difference while on the man advantage.

Blues Will Win If...

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    If Ryan Miller plays the way he did when he first arrived, and the team gets back at least half of its key injured forwards, the Blues will be fine. The style of game they play and ability to roll out four lines to wear out opponents is extremely effective when the right personnel are in place.

    They score timely goals, which can come from any number of forwards or defensemen.

    Then again, the Blackhawks are a pretty deep team with the ability to go toe to toe with the Blues when it comes to line matchups, which makes Miller's performance even more important.

Blackhawks Will Win If...

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    If the Blackhawks offense gets on a roll, it will be hard to stop. A top foursome of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa is a handful for any defense—even one as dynamic as the Blues'.

    Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jordan Leopold will have their hands full. But beyond the top couple of lines, the Blackhawks have dangerous scorers in the making with Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad as part of the third trio.

Prediction

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    Bill Smith/Getty Images

    A couple of months ago, the Blues were my favourite to make it out of the Western Conference. But things change quickly when health concerns come into play.

    Their play the past few weeks isn't indicative of how good the Blues are when fully healthy, but it is enough to question whether or not they are really ready to make that next step in the playoffs.

    Prediction: Blackhawks in six

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