Patrick Kane

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).

Meet Your US Olympic Hockey Team

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Team USA hopes to join the 1980 squad in reaching the top of the medal stand.

33 years ago in the small village of Lake Placid, N,Y the United States hockey team pulled off one of the greatest upsets in amateur hockey history when they downed the vaunted, powerful Russian team. Announcer Al Michaels shouted “Do you believe in miracles?” as the clock wound down on  Team USA’s 4-3 victory that set them up to win the gold medal. They did just that with a come from behind 4-2 win over Finland two days later. That was the last time the United States won the men’s hockey gold medal. They came close in 2010 when they lost a heart breaker in overtime to Canada 3-2 in the gold medal game, but the squad has won the gold just twice since 1960. A determined, interesting mix of players traveled to Sochi, Russia to compete against top international competition comprised mostly of NHL players.

The Goaltenders

Four years ago  Ryan Miller practically stole the Gold Medal from Canada all by himself. He produced a 1.35 Goals Against Average (second only to Henrik Lundqvist of Sweden’s 1.34) and stopped a tournament best 94.5% of the pucks directed towards him. Pittsburgh Penguins and US head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff have a big decision to make regarding who gets the bulk of the playing time, Miller or LA Kings goaltender and 2012 Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

The 28-year old netminder got off to a slow start and then missed a month and a half with a groin injury. Upon his return, Quick held opponents to 1.85 goals per game through 13 January contests. (His 2.68 GAA in three February is skewed by the five goals he allowed in one contest vs. the Blackhawks.) Miller has had the unenviable task of trying to keep a terrible Buffalo Sabres team – 14 wins in 51 games – from completely imploding. Miller has also been the subject of trade rumors as the Sabres look to rebuild for the future.

Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings returned to action on Jan. 28 after a week out with a hip flexor injury. He backed up Jonas Gustavsson against the Philadelphia Flyers, but started three games thereafter and combined on a shutout with Gustavsson after the latter had to leave the game after one period. Howard is number three on the depth chart and may see little or no playing time at all.

Despite the play of Miller four years ago, the gut feeling here is that Quick will be the #1 man between the pipes. He’s already been selected by Bylsma to start the first game of the tournament Thursday morning.

The Forwards

Number 88 of the Chicago Blackhawks has been tearing up opponents in the NHL , so it’s good timing for Patrick Kane to be suiting up for Team USA. Kane, who missed the Blackhawks last game prior to the break due to the death of his grandfather, has wracked up 63 points in 59 games. After a lackluster January, Kane found out that his grandfather died on Feb. 3 and took his out grief on the LA Kings with two goals and an assist. He’s the key forward to Team USA’s success.

The leading US scoring entering Olympic play was the Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel. The 26-year old got off to terrible start in last season’s strike shortened campaign, but burst out of the gate this season with 10 goals and 9 assists in the first 20 games.  His 65 points (31 goals, 34 assists) in 60 games is the fourth best overall total in the league. Team USA will also be looking to Toronto Maple Leaf winger James van Riemsdyk to add some scoring punch as well. The New Jersey Native is having a career year with 24 goals and 47 points in 58 games.

Team captain Zach Parise and right wing Ryan Callahan will bring their hard nosed NHL play to the larger international rink. Parise led the US with four goals in the 2010 games and sent the gold medal game with Canada to overtime with a late game tying goal. (Click here to check out Alli Baker’s profile of the US captain and Minnesota Wild star.) Callahan’s penalty killing ability and fiery play will be a huge asset to the US squad.

The Defensemen

Among those manning the blue line for the Americans will be assistant captain Ryan Suter, who played on the silver medal winning team in Vancouver four years ago. The Minnesota native is sixth in points among US born defensemen and 14th overall with 33 points. More than his point scoring ability, Bylsma will be counting on Suter for his leadership on the ice and in the locker room.

At 29, Suter is only the third oldest blue liner on the team. Pittsburgh Penguin teammates Paul Martin (32) and Brooks Orpik (33) lend more experience to Bylsma’s roster, even though this is Martin’s first Olympic experience.

Youngsters Ryan McDonaugh (NYR), John Carlson (WASH), and Cam Fowler (ANA) have combined for 35 power play points this season and are the key point men when Team USA has the man advantage.

Outlook

It won’t take a miracle on ice to capture the gold medal, but it will be a monumental task with the likes of powerhouse teams from Canada, Sweden, and Russia.  It’s the reason Vegas odds-makers have the US as the fourth favorite behind the aforementioned three teams.

Team USA’s goal for the gold gets underway Thursday morning, 7:30 EDT time against Slovakia. The team will be led by captain Zdeno Chara and assistants Marian Hossa and Michal Handzus. Coach Vladimir Vujtek will choose between Montreal’s Peter Budaj and St. Louis’ Jaroslav Halak to be the main man between the pipes. (The team also has KHL goalie Jan Laco.)

Drop the puck.

Drew Sarver is the publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes or contacted by email at dsarver@d4assignment.com.