Mike Poepping The Hockey Writers
Blues Set to Face Familiar Foes in Pivotal Round 1
The St. Louis Blues will likely play one of two familiar foes when the playoffs begin next Wednesday (April 13), but which would fans rather see in Rd. 1? Here’s a look into the pros and cons of playing either of the team’s long-time rival, Chicago Blackhawks, or the Minnesota Wild in the quarterfinals of the Western Conference playoffs.
The State of Both Opponents
The Blues need just one more point to secure at least second place in the Central Division, and while they seem to be gelling at the right time this season (something that has been absent in previous years), the true question remains: will they be able to keep up this high-octane pace of play in the postseason, and will they finally get the monkey off their back and make it past Rd. 1? Both opponents have given the Blues trouble in previous years, however both are not playing at 100 percent right now, giving the Note a better chance at a series victory this season.
While everyone knows the Hawks will be without Norris winner and No. 1 defensemen, Duncan Keith, for Game 1, that won’t really make too much of a difference with the series as a whole. Especially if the Blues decide to play as they have in years’ past where they squander series leads and exit in Game 6. However, the Hawks have some other adversities they are working through, including an inconsistent ending to their regular season, though they have now won three straight heading into Thursday’s affair with the boys in Blue.
Chicago has only been slightly better than a .500 team over their last 15 games played (7-6-2), though they have managed to keep a three goals-per-game (GPG) average over that span (largely in part to their recent three-game winning streak where they’ve averaged 5.67 GPG). They have been without their starting goaltender, Corey Crawford, for the past 10 games, without Marian Hossa for much of the year, and have had a plethora of other minor injuries to deal with. Though Crawford will be ready for the playoffs, will he be as sharp as usual? Probably not, given his previous track record.
Moving past injured players and to those in the lineup exposes the Hawks’ streaky nature since the All-Star break, with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both struggling to find the net for long stretches recently (Kane was t-83rd overall with nine points in March and was a minus-8; Toews was t-100th with eight points). Both Kane and rookie standout Artemi Panarin have been minus players since the skills competition occurred in late-January and with a D-core that seems to have a lot of holes, it could be a year where a strong Rd. 1 opponent takes out the juggernaut before they start rolling and gain invaluable momentum.
This may make Blues fans more intrigued by a Rd. 1 matchup because the Hawks are limping into the postseason more so this year than in many of the previous seasons past. This could spell success for a more balanced Blues team as long as they play a smart, 200-foot game where defense breeds opportunity, but that’s a lot to ask for against the Hawks, who have three Stanley Cups over their past six seasons. The success of the Hawks in the Toews/Kane era is what gives most Note faithfuls plenty of reservations about facing them at all in the playoffs.
The most recent team to knock the Blues out of Rd. 1 seem to be the better matchup for the Note this postseason, but fans know not to take things at surface value when it comes to the Blues and the playoffs. The Wild were red hot in late March and seemed to be meshing at the right time, but a recent four-game losing streak has brought up a lot of doubt in the State of Hockey. The Wild are just 7-7-1 over their last 15 games played, and haven’t scored more than two goals in a game since March 29 (against Chicago). The team seems to be very hit and miss, and could very easily be a formidable opponent in Rd. 1, or a good stepping stone to get ready for better competition moving forward.
That’s the most dangerous part about the Wild: their unpredictability. Though they have perennial playoff performers like Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, there are a lot of question marks with their depth for a playoff push at all. Outside of the four players mentioned, the Wild don’t have many players that average over .30 points-per-game in the postseason, meaning they will likely rely heavily upon goaltender Devan Dubnyk to keep games close. With his streaky play this season (27 GP, 2.53 GAA, .911 SV%, 1 SO since the All-Star break) they will likely experience trouble winning games consistently, and could very well see an early exit from this year’s playoffs.
This gives Blues fans a reason to hope they find a way to beat out the Stars for the top spot in the Central Division, and Western Conference. With a rematch of last year’s first round, the Note should have plenty of motivation to come out flying and close out the series in as little as five games. However, Blues fans know that nothing is guaranteed in the postseason, and last year’s embarrassing display of hockey allowed the Wild to watch the Note beat themselves en route to another early exit from the playoffs.
Who to Play
Though both teams have strengths and weaknesses coming into Rd. 1 of the playoffs this year, the Wild seem to be limping in a little more so than the Hawks. With Chicago’s postseason prowess, and the Blues success against the Wild this season, many fans may want to avoid the Hawks and play the Wild in Rd. 1. Stats back that decision, as the Blues have averaged 2.8 GPG against Minnesota this year, while only allowing 2.2 GA/G, and have a 3-2 record against the club. However, the Note have also fared well against the Blackhawks this season, though the games are closer. They have gone 2-2 against Chicago this year, averaging 2.7 GPG while only allowing 2.39 GA/G. Though the Hawks may be scary, it would be nice to put the final nail in their coffin before they build that momentum for later rounds, and get injured players back in the swing of playoff game play.
Regardless of who the Blues play in Rd. 1 of this year’s playoffs, their biggest opponent will continue to be themselves. The team has shown they are not the same group of guys as they were in years’ past, so fans do see light at the end of the tunnel. But with virtually the same leadership and coaching core in place, is there enough change to dictate a first round win? If the team can get healthy and cornerstone pieces like David Backes, Robby Fabbri, Jay Bouwmeester and Jake Allen return to form quickly, it will certainly help their cause. The most important thing for the team to remember is that playoff games are amplified versions of their regular season counterparts, and must be played accordingly.
If the Note can manage to keep their feet moving, back-and-fore-check 200 feet every shift, keep shifts short, clog passing lanes and capitalize on big opportunities, it won’t matter who’s on the ice because they will win. However, that’s a lot to ask for a team that notoriously goes missing once the real season begins. Only time will tell which Blues squad shows up when the playoffs begin next Wednesday, but it’s sure to be an exciting atmosphere once the puck drops.
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