You should know the drill by now. Seven games. Two teams. One advances.
Once again, the Chicago Blackhawks will kick off another Stanley Cup chase in a first-round meeting against hated divisional rival St. Louis. Let’s get to it.
Any discussion of the Blues starts with 24-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko, who’s sure to be a thorn in the side of the Hawks again this series.
Tarasenko led the team with 40 goals, almost doubling the second-leading goal scorer on his team (David Backes, with 21). His 74 points were also 22 more than the next candidate. Tarasenko is one of the NHL’s elite offensive weapons, and averting your eyes from the TV whenever he has the puck is recommended.
Behind Tarasenko, though, are a lot of good-but-not-necessarily-great players. Alex Steen is a solid Top 6 winger and Jaden Schwartz will certainly have a bigger postseason impact than he did in an injury-shortened regular season. Troy Brouwer and the aforementioned Backes each have a quality combination of size and skill, while Paul Stastny fits in nicely as one of the top two centers. But Tarasenko is far and away the biggest concern here, and the Hawks containing him will go a long way toward moving to the next round.
The D corps has a somewhat similar story in St. Louis. The top pairing of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo are pretty good and Kevin Shattenkirk provides some offense from the second pairing. Rookie Colton Parayko does the same on the third pairing. But it’s hard to call any of these groupings a true shutdown pairing. There are no Duncan Keith/Shea Weber/Zdeno Chara (in his prime) types on the blue line. And while there are some players with offensive abilities, they aren’t going to be mistaken for Erik Karlsson, either.
In net, Brian Elliot took over the starting role down the stretch and flourished, finishing the season with a 23-8-6 record, a miniscule 2.07 GAA and an impressive .930 save percentage. That’s not unheard of for Elliot in the regular season, though. In 2011-12, he was 23-10-4 with numbers of .940 and 1.56, respectively and later was at 18-6-2, .922 and 1.96 in 2013-14. His career playoff numbers? 6-10, .897 and 2.54 in 19 games. Elliot has yet to prove his regular season success translates to the playoffs.
With St. Louis holding home ice, I could see the Hawks struggling in Games 1 and 2, especially tonight with Duncan Keith not in the lineup. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock will likely use the benefit of the last change and get Tarasenko on the ice against the Hawks second and third D pairings. Expect him to have a huge start to this series.
But beyond that, this squad is not much different than the Blues teams of seasons past — teams that never escaped the first round. They don’t have a ton of scoring depth outside of Tarasenko, and their second and third defensive pairings have plenty of flaws while playing in their own end of the ice, in spite of their offensive zone prowess.
When the Hawks have home ice, expect coach Joel Quenneville to get the dynamic Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line out against some inferior competition and watch that group light up the scoreboard.
The biggest key to this series will be whether or not the Hawks can find scoring outside of that second line. When playing in St. Louis, the Blues should be able to throw out their top D pairing against that second line most of the time, and — at least — contain it. If the Toews-led top line or Teravainen’s third line or even the fourth line of Desjardins-Kruger-Shaw, which was excellent last postseason, can consistently find the net, the Hawks will figure this out before seven games have been completed.
Prediction: After splitting the first four games, the Hawks will win Game 5 and then send St. Louis packing again at the United Center. Hawks in 6.