ST LOUIS, Mo – Two contenders face each other in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs Thursday night in St. Louis. These two clubs last faced each other in the 2002 postseason. It was a time where long-time Blues fan favorite Brian Sutter was patrolling a bench with red jerseys in front of him while current Chicago coach Joel Quenneville had blue jerseys in front of him. The Blues won that series 4 games to 1 before being dispatched by the same series result to the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, eventual winners of that year’s Stanley Cup.
It is funny how things have changed. After the series loss to St. Louis, Chicago missed the playoffs for the next five seasons before earning a ticket to the post-season dance party. In their first playoff after the long-layoff, the Blackhawks lost in the Conference Finals before winning their first Cup since 1961 the next season in 2010. Then they defeated Boston last Spring for their second Cup in three seasons.
For St. Louis, after the 2002 defeat of Chicago, two consecutive, first-round defeats were followed by three straight early tee times. A late-season surge in 2009 qualified St. Louis for the playoffs, but a 4-0 series sweep to Vancouver quickly ended the unexpected excitement. After two more seasons where there would not be game #83, a re-tooled St. Louis team ran into a buzz saw in the Los Angeles Kings, winner of the 2012 Stanley Cup before losing to Chicago in the 2013 Western Conference Final.
In 2014, both clubs have been impacted by late-season injuries, St. Louis perhaps a little more so than Chicago. Throwing history and season-long statistics out the window, this is a look at both teams as they enter the postseason battle and the sense of what just might happen in the series.
Goaltending – Corey Crawford has benefitted from solid team play in front of him the last two seasons. He is solid, but it is very possible the Blues might slice right through the Chicago defense and give the Blackhawk net minder a little peppering. While Crawford has the recent Cup victory to point to, he has not been as good this year as last season. If the Blues can get Crawford to move out of his comfort zone and get him to move laterally on scoring chances, he could be exposed.
At the other end, Ryan Miller has something to prove. The late-season trade acquisition went 7-1 before the team’s recent struggles and seems to finally be settling in to his role as the definitive number one goaltender for St. Louis. He has been with his teammates just six weeks and finally seems to be adjusting to his defensemen and the lower shot totals allowed by a stingy Blues’ team. As a free agent at the end of the season, Ryan Miller knows that not only is this is best shot to win a Cup, but his play will go a long way to determining his next contract. Give the edge to St. Louis.
Defense – Both clubs sport solid anchors on the backline, effective hitters to slow down the attach and good puck-moving players. Chicago’s blue liners know how to win the big games as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook lead the Blackhawks’ defense. Still, St. Louis seems to have a hungrier group equipped to overcome Chicago’s attack. With a solid defensive corps, the Blues can roll just about any line out to match up against Chicago. The minute-munching Alex Pietrangelo (averaging 25:12 per game) and Jay Bouwmeester (averaging 24:02) seem to realize this is their time to reach the latter rounds of the playoffs. What better way to start than against the defending Champions. I give a slight advantage to St. Louis.
Offense – Despite the late-season collapse by St. Louis largely caused to a number of injuries mostly in the last two weeks of the season, the Blues feel this is their time.
The Blues will get most of their players back for Game One with Patrik Berglund almost certain to be available only toward the middle to end of the first-round battle. It is looking like Vladimir Tarasenko might return for Game One and is sure to provide the added jump needed to reverse the recent stagnant attack.
For Chicago, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews should return and Marian Hossa will be crafty around the net for the Blackhawk attack. Patrick Sharp and Andrew Shaw are sure to provide the added depth Chicago needs to continue rolling a consistent scoring effort.
The season for St. Louis was stellar up until nearly the very end and the late-season struggles came at an inopportune time. There is a hungry group in the Gateway City and Chicago will have difficulty stopping the determined Blues and dispatching their longtime foe. St. Louis gets the advantage in offense.
Coaching – for a coach who just joined a elite company of three with over 700 regular season wins, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville is one of the NHL’s finest. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is right behind him at 648. In the playoffs, Quenneville leads 88 to 72 and has 2 Cups to Hitchcock’s 1999 triumph in Dallas. Still, Hitchcock seems to be pressing all of the right buttons during the season, even despite the April struggles. Looks for Hitchcock to take advantage of the last change and dial-in the right match-ups against a seasoned Quenneville. It will be an epic chess match. I give the slightest of edges to St. Louis.
In watching this series, there is an element which cannot be viewed on any stat sheet or record book. The Blues have endured struggles the last three seasons and learned from every one of them. The team has never been this equipped to compete for a Cup and at least in this series, their time is now.
Game One between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks is Thursday night at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Face-off is set for 8:00 PM ET.
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