Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues: 5 Key Storylines to Follow in the Series
The Chicago Blackhawks are set to tangle with Central Division rival St. Louis in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. What should prove to be a hard-fought series gets underway Thursday night.
It seemed unlikely that the 'Hawks and the Blues would face each other in the first round just a couple of weeks ago. However, a struggling St. Louis team fell to the second spot in the division, and here we are.
There looks to be plenty of drama on both sides of this matchup. Here are some storylines to keep an eye on over the course of the series.
1. The Return of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane
Whether or not they are in game shape or not, getting back two cornerstone players like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane has to provide some jump for the Blackhawks.
Kane was injured March 21 in a win over the Blues and missed the last 11 regular-season contests. He has been skating with the team for most of the last week. Kane's left leg will be tested in St. Louis Thursday night.
Toews has been held out of action since an upper-body injury suffered in Pittsburgh March 30. The 'Hawks opted to rely on younger players the last two weeks in order to get their two stars close to 100 percent for the playoffs.
How Toews and Kane return to action is going to have a major influence on how the series takes shape.
2. Joel Quenneville's Lineup Choices
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has some players who have performed well in the absence of Toews and Kane. He also has some veteran players who have been through postseason wars.
The choices Quenneville makes and the way they work out is going to be scrutinized.
Quenneville has confidence in a skater like Michal Handzus. He's at the end of the line in a lengthy NHL career but was a big part of Chicago's title run a year ago.
Jeremy Morin had been red hot as the regular season wound down. Did he impress Quenneville enough to crack the playoff lineup?
Defenseman Michal Rozsival has been used sparingly throughout the season, presumably to be in optimal shape for the postseason. Rozsival has played in 42 contests in 2013-14 and has seen the ice in just seven of the 'Hawks last 20 games.
Sheldon Brookbank has manned the blue line for the Blackhawks in the latter stages of the season. Quenneville may decide from game-to-game as to which defenseman is the right match for the Blues. Last season, it was Brookbank who sat for most of the playoffs. Time will tell if he plays a bigger part in Chicago's defense of the Stanley Cup.
3. Corey Crawford vs. Ryan Miller
It wouldn't be the postseason if Corey Crawford's ability to lead the Blackhawks through the playoffs wasn't questioned. It may be a bad rap considering Crawford has a Stanley Cup to his name.
He's also played pretty well since returning from an injury that kept him out of most of December. In 31 appearances since coming back in January, Crawford had a 2.00 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
Of course, he gave up four goals in his last appearance in Washington last Friday, so expect to hear the naysayers claiming that Crawford is not an elite goalie and cannot take the 'Hawks to the Cup.
In the other crease, Ryan Miller has not been at his best as the Blues slumped heavily in the final games. St. Louis traded a pretty solid netminder in Jaroslav Halak to get Miller, who anchored the Buffalo Sabres to the Eastern Conference Final in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Miller hasn't won a playoff series since, though he had a magical run in the 2010 Olympics. The Blues are counting on Miller to find that game against the Blackhawks.
A hot goalie can swing the odds in his team's favor in the postseason. The play in net is going to figure heavily in the result of the series.
4. Bryan Bickell
Bryan Bickell earned himself a four-year, $16 million contract with his playoff performance last spring. After a season in which he totaled 11 goals and four assists, it is anyone's guess as to how the big forward will play in this opening round.
Bickell, who had offseason knee surgery, injured the other knee against Colorado in mid-November and missed nearly a month of the season. He was also out with an injury last month and was out six games.
How Bickell's knees feel is a huge key to him being a factor. He is going to be asked to provide a physical element on whatever line he is assigned. Right now, that could be with Kane and Andrew Shaw.
Bickell doesn't have to match last year's nine-goal, eight-assist effort. That said, he got the big money with the playoffs in mind. Bickell is definitely a player to watch.
5. How the 'Hawks Respond to the Blues' Physical Nature
This is going to be a physical series. Make no mistake, the Blues are going to attempt to pound Chicago early and often.
If St. Louis can limit the effectiveness of the 'Hawks puck-possession style of play, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is going to feel good about his team's chances. If Chicago loses composure and gets into a slugfest, it will be better for the Blues.
David Backes is coming off of a foot injury but figures to be on the ice and ready to pester Toews. Steve Ott isn't the player he was a few years ago but can still agitate with the best of them.
St. Louis is a banged up club upfront but won a lot of games this season behind its rugged style. The way Chicago handles the rough stuff is going to factor into how this first-round clash plays out.