For the past month, the Chicago Blackhawks seemed destined to face the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the NHL playoffs. A six-game losing streak by the St. Louis Blues, however, has brought about the unexpected: the Blues and Blackhawks will be matching up in the first round, while the division-winning Avalanche will play the Minnesota Wild.
Dropping six games in a row sounds bad enough, but it might actually understate just how awful St. Louis has been this month. The Blues haven’t scored a goal in their last 144 minutes of game action, have been shut out four times in their last eight games and are averaging less than one goal per game in April.
This offensive futility is to some degree attributable to a terrible rash of injuries; Vladimir Tarasenko, David Backes, Brenden Morrow, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Sobotka, Derek Roy, Patrik Berglund and even Alex Pietrangelo have missed time during the stretch. Ken Hitchcock is reported to have said that most and perhaps all of these players will be ready to play in Game 1, but early indications suggest that at least Tarasenko and Berglund won’t be ready to go by next Thursday.
In light of St. Louis’ brutal play of late, drawing the defending champions in the first round seems close to a death sentence. Still, the Blackhawks have issues of their own; Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will play in Game 1, but there is no telling how healthy they actually are. Furthermore, Chicago dipped back into a bad early-season habit in its last two games of the year, having a disturbing amount of breakdowns in the defensive zone.
In terms of points, the Blackhawks and Blues tied the season series with six. Chicago had the edge in overall play, dominating the most recent two matchups to the tune of an 8-2 aggregate score. Both teams have their share of injury concerns, but St. Louis certainly has the worst of it.
The knock on the Blues come playoff time has generally been their inability to score, so the late-season offensive doldrums are a foreboding sign for St. Louis. After being near the top of the NHL in most offensive categories during the first part of the season, the Blues put up relatively average numbers during the second half. They lack a true game-breaking forward, and Ryan Miller hasn’t quite lived up to the hype.
Chicago, meanwhile, has proven itself as a playoff titan. Toews and Kane’s health will be an interesting factor to keep an eye on, but the Blackhawks don’t lack for scoring punch behind them. In addition to those two, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are each better offensive players than anyone on St. Louis’ roster.
It is popular to label goaltending as Chicago’s biggest weakness, but Corey Crawford is coming off a strong regular season and likely should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy the last time he and the Blackhawks were in the playoffs. If the Blues are to triumph over the Blackhawks, they must keep the series low-scoring and will need to rely heavily on Miller. With the extent of their injuries and utter ineptitude on offense lately, however, this is an extremely tall order.
Prediction: Chicago takes the series in six games.