St. Louis Blues (2nd seed, Central Division) versus Chicago Blackhawks (3rd seed, Central Division)
These are two powerhouses. The Blues and Blackhawks are squaring off in a first-round series that guarantees a legitimate Stanley Cup contender is going to be sent home early. For that reason alone, this could be the most compelling series of the first round.
But there's so much more than that. The Blackhawks are trying to become the first team in the salary-cap era to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. In a battle over whether the Blackhawks or the Los Angeles Kings are the better dynasty in today's era, that accomplishment would give Chicago the edge. For the Blues, this is an opportunity to bury the demons of past postseason failures. A win over the defending champs would likely be the springboard to a long spring and perhaps even the championship that has eluded this team for so long.
How they win
St. Louis: There's an opportunity, especially with star defenseman Duncan Keith suspended for Game 1, for the Blues to roll four lines and expose a thin Blackhawks defense. Chicago won a Stanley Cup last season while relying heavily on its top four defensively, so this isn't anything new. But the Blues' strength is its depth at forward and on defense, and to beat the Blackhawks, they have to keep coming consistently, from the top of the lineup to the bottom. "This team is ready to go," Blues forward Alex Steen told the media on Saturday. "We've been able to roll the lines over and play almost like a machine and keep coming at people with waves. That's something we're going to have to do in the playoffs."
Chicago: If the Blackhawks can steal an early one in St. Louis, especially Game 1 without Keith, the pressure will immediately shift to the Blues -- and this group hasn't shown it can handle it. The Blackhawks? They absolutely can. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane & Co. know how to close out a series. When the Blues opened a 2-0 series lead two years ago, the Blackhawks' stars found another gear to finish St. Louis off in six. The Blackhawks will win if their stars, including their newest, Artemi Panarin, outshine St. Louis' and do the same as they did two years ago. Chicago, unlike the Blues, can draw on its experience and confidence, knowing what it takes to win a series, to eliminate the Blues. "Might as well start at the top," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told the media Saturday. "They're the only team in the league, quite frankly, with the knowledge of what it takes. We get first crack at them."
How they lose
St. Louis: In what should be a close series, the Blues won't survive struggles in goal. The Blues have been sunk in the past by inconsistent playoff goaltending, and until one of their goalies seizes the opportunity, there will be doubts. What there's no doubting is Brian Elliott turned in one of the most unheralded seasons in goal this year. He finished the regular season as the NHL's leader in save percentage at .930. Now, he'll get a shot to be that kind of goalie in the playoffs and erase his career playoff save percentage of .897. "[Elliott] wants a crack at the playoffs, and you have to admire that," Hitchcock told reporters after the Blues' final regular-season game. "He's earned it. He wants a crack, and he'll get it."
Chicago: Besides their depth concerns on defense, the Blackhawks enter the postseason with their own issues in goal. They relied heavily on Corey Crawford, and he responded with one of the best regular seasons of his career to finish with a .924 save percentage. They also struggled down the stretch, when he was out with an upper-body injury. He'll start the playoffs with essentially one game under his belt in the past month, and that was Saturday's overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Crawford has allowed 17 goals in his past five games, with a save percentage of .873. But here's what we know about Crawford: He seems to enter every postseason surrounded by questions and always finds answers. He has earned the benefit of the doubt here.
According to behindthenet.ca, that was Niklas Hjalmarsson's Corsi quality of competition, a number topped by only the Colorado Avalanche's Erik Johnson's among those who played at least 50 games this season. Simply put, only one guy in the NHL played against tougher competition this season than Hjalmarsson. He also started just 45 percent of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone. Even with those tough minutes, the Blackhawks controlled 51.8 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when he was on the ice, and he finished a plus-13 this season. Expect him to see a lot of the Vladimir Tarasenko line, and the winner of that battle might very well be the one that advances to Round 2. This is where home-ice advantage is huge for Hitchcock and the Blues.
St. Louis: Tarasenko has emerged as a playoff beast, with 10 goals in his past 12 playoff games. He also played quite well against the Blackhawks this season and was a big reason the Blues finished 3-2-0 against Chicago. Tarasenko had five goals in those five games. He finished strong with four goals in five April games.
Chicago: Kane is going to win the Hart as regular-season MVP, and if the Blackhawks advance, there's a good chance he's the reason. Kane has had big postseasons in the past, but this is the first time he'll play on a line that seems created just for him -- centered by Artem Anisimov and flanked by Panarin, whose two-man game with Kane was all but impossible to stop this season. Kane comes into the postseason red-hot, with seven goals in his past five games, and there's no reason to anticipate he'll slow down. He had five points in five games against the Blues this season.
This is going to be a great series. The hardest thing to do in the Stanley Cup playoffs is eliminate a champion that knows how to win it all. The belief here is that the playoff lessons of the past will help the Blues pull it off. Blues in 7.