Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues: Which Rival Makes an Opening Statement?

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistOctober 24, 2014

Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues: Which Rival Makes an Opening Statement?

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    The Chicago Blackhawks face their first red-letter opponent of the season when they travel to the Scottrade Center Saturday night to take on the team they eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last season: the St. Louis Blues.

    The Blues should be ready to come with their best effort as the Blackhawks come calling. Ken Hitchcock's Blues have been a powerful regular-season team in recent years, but they have disappointed in the playoffs.

    While they won't be able to change that assessment until April, coaches like to get the measure of their teams by seeing how they compete against top rivals. A game in October is not going to settle any arguments, but it can set a tone for how the season series between the two teams will go.

    The Blackhawks (4-1-1) are off to a productive start this season, while the Blues (2-3-1) have had problems asserting their offense. Look for a hard-hitting, physical battle between two teams that are likely to be among the best in the league and also share a deep dislike for each other.

    We break down the game, provide the edges in four categories and predict a winner.

Offense

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    The Blackhawks would seem to have a big edge on paper in this category, and the early-season games bear this out.

    The Blackhawks have scored 18 goals through their first six games, while the Blues have scored 13 goals through the same amount of games.

    Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are the Blackhawks' leading scorers. More than the numbers, head coach Joel Quenneville knows that Kane and Toews are likely to come up with key plays when the Blackhawks need them most.

    The Blues have gotten an impressive start from Jaden Schwartz, who has scored four goals and seven points in the early going. Hitchcock has also gotten strong production from Vladimir Tarasenko and Kevin Shattenkirk. New addition Paul Stastny has the speed and explosiveness to cause problems for Chicago's defense, but he is battling an upper-body injury and may not play.

    Curiously, Olympic shootout hero T.J. Oshie has gotten off to a slow start and has not had an impact yet.

    A flu bug is circulating around the Blues, and that could have an impact on the lineup that Hitchcock puts out against the Blackahawks.

    Edge: Chicago 

    No surprise that that the Blackhawks earn the check mark in this category because of their skill and productivity.

Defense

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    The Blackhawks are a strong offensive team that puts a focus on puck possession. Even though this is their main area of strength, they are a solid defensive team as well.

    Duncan Keith is the defending Norris Trophy winner and is a key factor every time he takes the ice against the Blues, while Brent Seabrook is a talented player who may not be quite as consistent as head coach Joel Quenneville would like to see.

    Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson form the Blackhawks' top shutdown pair, and if they have the lead in the final moments, look for these two to be on the ice.

    Backup Antti Raanta is likely to play in this game because starter Corey Crawford (upper body) suffered an injury earlier in the week. Raanta proved to be a competent backup last year and the Blackhawks have confidence in him. However, he may not be up to Crawford's level at this point, even though fans like to criticize the starter whenever he gives up a shaky goal.

    The Blues are a tough-minded and nasty defensive team most nights, and that is especially the case when they visit the Blackhawks.

    Kevin Shattenkirk is off to an excellent start with one goal and five assists, and he teams with Ian Cole on the blue line.

    Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester form the Blues' top defensive pairing and are capable of contributing on the offensive end as well.

    Hitchcock has indicated that Brian Elliott will get the start in goal vs. the Blackhawks, and he has been solid for the Blues since the 2011-12 season. He is off to an impressive start this year with a 1.76 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.

    Edge: St. Louis

    Shattenkirk is at the top of his game, and Elliott has to rate a small edge over Raanta.

Special Teams

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    Despite the incredibly high skill level on the Blackhawks roster, the power play has been an issue in recent seasons. With stars like Kane, Toews, Sharp, Keith and Marian Hossa, the Blackhawks should be able to dominate in this area.

    That hasn't happened, and the power play is ordinary again this year. The Blackhawks have scored on 5-of-26 man-advantage chances (19.2 percent), which ranks them in a tie for 16th in that category.

    The Blues have scored on 6-of-25 power-play chances, and their 28.0 percentage ranks third in the league. Shattenkirk scored a man-advantage goal in the Blues' 4-1 loss to Vancouver Thursday night.

    Chicago has been much more consistent when killing penalties. While the Blackhawks may go through a couple of streaks during the season when they give up a few costly power-play goals, but they have confidence in their personnel and their setup.

    The Blackhawks rank sixth in the NHL on the penalty kill, and they are shutting opponents down on 89.5 percent of their short-handed situations. The Blues have been ordinary in this area, ranking 22nd in that category as they have stopped their opponents on 77.3 percent of their short-handed chances.

    Edge: Even

    The Blues have been better on the power play, and they will likely get better in their short-handed play. The Blackhawks are unlikely to play to their vast potential on the power play based on this unit's overall performance in recent seasons, but they tend to excel on the penalty kill.

Intangibles

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    There's a painful insecurity that comes from losing in the playoffs on a consistent basis. It makes a team angry and difficult to play in the regular season.

    That's just what the Blackhawks are likely to find when they face the Blues in the second game of a two-game road trip that started with a loss in Nashville.

    The Blues have been fairly ordinary this month (2-3-1), but beating a powerhouse rival on a Saturday night in front of their home fans would provide a little bit of peace for this team.

    Hitchcock is one of the top strategists in the NHL, but Quenneville is one of the top coaches in the history of the game. The Blackhawks' bench boss is not going to give anything away, even in an early-season game.

    However, the Blues are likely to be revved up a bit more for this game than the Blackhawks, and a quick start could give them the edge to secure the win.

    Edge: St. Louis

    It could come down to home ice and desperation, and the Blues have both.

Winner: St. Louis Blues

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    The Blackhawks are a proud team that may be looking at the big picture this season and making a run at the Stanley Cup, but they are smart enough not to give any game away—even an early-season meeting with a pained and hungry rival.

    So, Chicago will have a maximum effort here. However, Crawford's mysterious upper-body injury means he is likely to miss this game and that could hurt. Raanta is a capable backup who may be a fan favorite, but Crawford is a Stanley Cup-winning goalie who knows how to keep his cool in big games. 

    This game seems much bigger to St. Louis than Chicago. There's a certain humiliation that comes with losing two home games in a row, and the Blues want to avoid that at all costs.

    It may take an Alex Steen (pictured above) goal in overtime, but the Blues are the likely winner.

    Predicted outcome: St. Louis 4, Chicago 3 (OT)

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