Chicago Blackhawks

2014 NHL PLAYOFFS: BLUES VS. BLACKHAWKS

Ryan Miller Blues 2014 playoff previewRyan Miller must find his game if the St. Louis Blues are to have a chance at winning the Stanley Cup.
by Christopher Wenrich

Fans in St. Louis were probably singing the blues lately, as their Blues ended their regular season with a six-game losing streak. One of the preseason favorites to win the Stanley Cup, the Blues had an excellent regular season as they were among the National Hockey League’s best teams both offensively and defensively. Injuries, however, began to take their toll in the stretch run of the season. Vladimir Tarasenko (broken thumb) and David Backes

(foot) will be available for a Game 1 showdown with division rival and the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. T.J. Oshie will be unavailable. Patrik Berglund (upper body) is also unavailable.
St. Louis Blues
239 goals for (7th)
188 goals against (3rd)
19.8 PP% (7th)
85.7 PK% (7th)

Alexander Steen led the way in scoring for the Blues with 33 goals and 62 points in 68 games. If not for missing 14 games, Steen likely would have posted his first career 40-goal season. Oshie amassed 60 points in 70 games while Backes scored 57 points in 74 games. In addition to his offensive contributions, Backes was third in the NHL with 273 hits. Youngsters Tarasenko (43 points) and Jaden Schwartz (56 points) rounded out the Blues’ scoring depth.

In addition to Backes, Brenden Morrow and Steve Ott were also physical forwards. Center Derek Roy provides the blues with depth down the middle and Sobotka won 61.9% of his faceoffs this season. Up front, the Blues have skill, grit, and two-way players in what may be the most balanced collection of forwards in the NHL.

Alex Pietrangelo (51 points) and Jay Bouwmeester (37 points) form what is arguably the NHL’s best defensive pairing. Pietrangelo averaged 25 minutes of ice time per game. Both are strong defensively and generate offense with their skating and their quick puck movement. Had Bouwmeester scored three more points, the Blues would have had three 40-point defensemen, as Kevin Shattenkirk notched 45 points this season. The Blues have plenty of experience on the blue line, with stay-at-home defenseman Barret Jackman, Carlo Colaiacovo and Jordan Leopold.

Although goaltender Jaroslav Halak was solid, the Blues traded him at the deadline to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Ott and goaltender Ryan Miller. Despite having virtually no defensive support with the Sabres, Miller looked like a Vezina candidate. Miller is an elite goaltender who conceivably puts a talented Blues team over the top in their quest for the Cup. Miller had a nice start in his first few games with the Blues, but struggled along with the team in their season-ending six-game losing streak. The Blues are counting on Miller to quickly regain his top form in order to have a chance against a tough Chicago squad.

Chicago Blackhawks
261 goals for (2nd)
212 goals against (12th)
19.5 PP% (10th)
81.4 PK% (19th)

Just as the Blues have their captain (Backes) returning for game one, so do the Blackhawks. Captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be playing in Game 1. Surprisingly, these young superstars were not the team’s leading scorer, as Patrick Sharp amassed 34 goals and 78 points in 82 games. Kane registered 69 points in 69 games while Toews had 68 in 76 games.

Versatile winger Brandon Saad played on a line with Toews and Sharp at times this season. Saad is a very underrated player who can play any forward position and contribute on any line. Saad’s versatility gives the Blackhawks more flexibility to juggle their lines or possibly stack the top line with a Sharp/Toews/Kane trio. Veteran Marian Hossa is still going strong, having scored 30 goals and 60 points this season. When fully healthy, the Blackhawks possess perhaps the best offensive team in the NHL.

Chicago has an experienced core on the blue line with the likes of Michal RozsivalBrent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya, but the defense begins and ends with Duncan Keith. Keith is a superb two-way defenseman whose improved defensive play tends to be overshadowed by his brilliant puck distribution. Keith’s 61 points was second among NHL defenseman, trailing only the Ottawa Senators’ Erik Karlsson (74 points). The ability of Keith and Nick Leddy to generate an attack in transition is the engine that makes the Blackhawks’ offense run.

Although not an elite goaltender by any stretch of the imagination, Corey Crawford is solid and has stretches where he plays like an elite goalie. Crawford was 32-16-10 this season with a 2.26 GAA, a .917 SV% and two shutouts.

nhl bracketThe Blues will be worthy of advancing to the next round if they defeat the Blackhawks, especially with the injuries they’ve had to deal with. While waiting for the rest of their key players to return, Miller must return to the form he showed earlier this season with the Sabres.

This series has the potential to be the best first-round match up in either conference. With the Blues’ depleted squad, the Blackhawks have the advantage in the early going. They’ll need Crawford to be on top of his game and not give that advantage away. Look for this to be a hard-fought seven-game series, and do not be surprised to see the Blues come out on top despite their recent play.

Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment. Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).