#2 St. Louis Blues vs. #3 Chicago Blackhawks
Season Series: St. Louis 3-2-0
The St. Louis Blues entered the 2013-14 season with high expectations, fresh off elimination in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, courtesy of the Los Angeles Kings. The Blues added to their youthful talent pool over the summer by shipping off David Perron, and gaining Magnus Paajarvi in return.
The Blues built their team from the net out, but construction on their goalie tandem wasn’t completed until Trade Deadline day. The Blues traded starter Jaroslav Halak away to the Buffalo Sabres, in return for Ryan Miller, one of the most respected goaltenders in the game today. At the back-up position, Bryan Elliot has reached consistency at the highest level of his career to date, and is ranked in the top five for save percentage among goaltenders this season.
The Blues’ offense is as potent as ever, thanks to solid seasons from T.J. Oshie, captain David Backes, and second-year Vladimir Tarasenko. Additions like Steve Ott (part of the Miller trade) toughened up an already grizzled Blues offense, which includes names such as Maxim Lapierre and Ryan Reaves. Alexander Steen was well on his way to a career-year by November, but injuries sidetracked the assistant captain, finishing with 33 goals and 62 points in 68 games.
On defense, the Blues are led by Team Canada standouts Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, as well as intimidating presences in Roman Polak and Jordan Leopold. Bouwmeester set a career-high with a +26 rating in all 82 games, playing his first full season since 2011, while Pietrangelo set a career high in assists (43) and tied his career-high point total of 51.
The Blues’ special-teams were a huge key to their success this season, with the league’s second-ranked penalty kill (85.7%), and a seventh-ranked power-play, converting at 19.8%. The Blues were also one of the most penalized teams in the league, racking up 494 penalty minutes (by comparison, Chicago had 402).
Backstop: Ryan Miller (25-30-4, .903% save percentage, 2.47 GAA) will begin his first playoff run since 2011, and is expected to play nearly all of the Blues’ games in the first round.
Ex-Jets: None, however, Ryan Reaves and Alexander Steen both hail from Winnipeg.
The Blackhawks began their regular season much similarly to the way they did in 2013, with at least one point in 24 of their first 28 games. By the end of November, the Blackhawks were riding high on a six-game winning streak, and were the top team in the entire NHL.They lost Nikolai Khabibulin with a season-ending injury after only four starts, and in came Antti Raanta in his first year of North American pro hockey as the back-up.
The Blackhawks slowed off their torrid pace by mid-December, and had struggles against most of their Central Division opponents. A slower start to 2014 plagued the Blackhawks, and they dipped to third in the Central Division.
After sending a NHL-high 10 players to the Olympics, the Blackhawks came back from Sochi slower, and injury-prone. March came and went with a meager 7-7-1 record, and their top prospect, Teuvo Teravainen, joined the team late in the month.
The ‘Hawks lost Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for the final games of the regular season, held out of the lineup due to injury, and shut down until the playoffs after the Blackhawks clinched a playoff spot, and their placement was certain in the first round. The ‘Hawks cleaned up their regular season with four wins in their last six games.
Duncan Keith is a favourite for another Norris Trophy, after tying a career-high with 55 assists on the season, tops among NHL defensemen.
Patrick Sharp emerged as one of the league’s top snipers at age 32, and was as high as second on the league’s scoring list at one time, finishing with INCOMPLETE goals.
Backstop: Corey Crawford proved that last year was no fluke, ranking in the top-10 league-wide in both wins (32), and GAA (2.26).
X-Factor: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Easily the Blackhawks’ two most effective players in their 2013 Cup run, will they return from injury ready for the stress of playoff hockey in their first game?
Ken Hitchcock and Joel Quenneville are both among the NHL’s all-time great coaches, and both will be looking to add to their hardware this spring: Hitchcock has one Stanley Cup while with the Dallas Stars in 1999, while Quenneville has two Cups with Chicago in 2010 and 2013. Quenneville coached the Blues for seven seasons ending in 2003, appearing in the playoffs every year until his last.
The Blues and Blackhawks have met in the post-season 10 times, with the Blackhawks winning seven of them, although the Blues have won the two most recent series’ (1993, 2002).
Prediction Sure To Go Wrong:
The Blackhawks have done it before, and with nearly the same roster as the year before, they won’t be stopped by their Division rival. The Blackhawks defeat the Blues in a nail-biting Game Seven, with Brandon Saad scoring the series-clinching goal.
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