The Chicago Blackhawks may have finished in third place in the Central Division and fifth in the Western Conference, but the feeling around the team is one of strong optimism.
After a rough patch in March that saw Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews suffer injuries, the team played much better hockey in the closing stages—4-2-0 since April 3—and appear to be close to top form. Additionally, Kane and Toews both appeared to be healthy in skating drills as Chicago prepare for their first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues.
Additionally, the Blues closed the season by dropping their last games. No overtimes, no shootouts, just six 60-minute losses.
The team that were the front-runner for the Presidents' Trophy didn't even win the Central Division. Instead, the Blues finished second to the Colorado Avalanche and seemingly lost their edge at the worst possible time.
On the surface, the rebounding Blackhawks should be able to dictate the pace against the Blues and appear to have gotten a very favorable matchup. Not only were the Blues slumping at the end of the season, but they have a poor recent history in postseasons. Head coach Ken Hitchcock's team were bounced out of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Kings in each of the last two seasons.
In 2011-12, the Blues beat the Sharks in the first round before they were swept by the Kings in the following series. Last year, St. Louis won the first two games of the opening-round series against Los Angeles before dropping the last four.
However, anyone thinking the Blackhawks are going to have an easy time with the Blues may want to think again.
The Blues may have slumped at the wrong time of the year, but they are still a deep and powerful team that are capable of going on a long run deep into the playoffs. St. Louis ranked third in the NHL in goals against, second in penalty killing and fifth in five-on-five play.
The team suffered through injuries at the end of the year, and having three days off before the start of the playoffs is giving the Blues a chance to get healthy and refreshed once again.
Hitchcock met with reporters Tuesday, and told them that his team's mindset was fine and that they are prepared for the Blackhawks.
"The end of the season seems like it was a year ago," Hitchccock told the media (3:30 mark). "All it took was one phone call from players who aren't in the playoffs and our guys know the opportunity they have coming up. Our guys are feeling excited now. Everyone's focused on one team and we're getting ready. This is fun. This is what it's all about."
If Hitchcock is correct in his assessment, the Blues' players will have to put the end of the regular season behind them by the time the puck drops in St. Louis Thursday night. The Blues should also be significantly healthier than they were the final week of the season.
T.J. Oshie, David Backes and Vladimir Sobotka could all be in the lineup for the first game of the series, as could defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who missed Sunday's regular-season finale against Detroit with an undisclosed injury.
Having those four players skating at full speed would obviously help the Blues, and give them a chance to play like the team that played stellar hockey through mid-March.
Even if those four players return, the Blues would still not be at full health, with Brenden Morrow, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Tarasenko not expected to play in the first game of the series. However, Hitchcock said he expects everybody to be healthy at "some point" in the series.
Who will win the first-round playoff series?
The Blues are a hard-hitting team that emphasizes defense. However, they showed they could also score effectively this season. When the Blues are on their game, they play a very similar style to the Boston Bruins—the Blackhawks' opponent in last year's Stanley Cup Final.
Joel Quenneville is much too smart to assume his team will have a walkover against St. Louis just because they struggled at the end of the regular season. In addition, Toews is not called Captain Serious because he takes any opponent lightly, so look for these two men to have the Blackhawks prepared for the best St. Louis has to offer.
They are preparing for a long and grueling series, and they know that they will be fortunate to come out on top against an opponent that has demonstrated how strong they are throughout the majority of the season.