SERIES STARTS: Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. ET in St. Louis.
HOW THEY WIN:
BLUES: St. Louis boasts a powerhouse on paper every year. It has speed and youth on the wings from Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Robby Fabbri. It has size in David Backes and Troy Brouwer and playmaking acumen from Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera. The Blues boast a mobile blueline led by Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester. Coach Ken Hitchcock gets defensive buy-in from almost every player, including most of his forwards, and the Blues have never finished worse than seventh in goals against since he took over in 2011-12. Goaltenders Jake Allen and Brian Elliott continue to wrestle the starting job from each other every time one of them gets hurt, but both have been excellent for most of the season.
BLACKHAWKS: These are the same old Hawks at first glance, blessed with an enviable star core that has fuelled a modern-day dynasty. Patrick Kane is the NHL’s most dynamic, unpredictable offensive weapon. Jonathan Toews remains a pre-eminent leader and two-way center. Duncan Keith swallows up tough minutes on defense. Goaltender Corey Crawford has been too good to draw criticism from even his biggest skeptics. The Hawks also evolved into something new during the off-season. GM Stan Bowman, maneuvering around salary cap woes, infused a gritty lineup with skill, most notably through Kane’s linemates, rookie Artemi Panarin and pivot Artem Anisimov. They add a finesse element on top of the usual sandpaper Chicago gets from agitators such as Andrew Shaw and stay-at-home blueliners such as Niklas Hjalmarsson. Bowman was aggressive leading up to the trade deadline, securing forwards Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann, giving coach Joel Quenneville an impossibly deep toy box.
HOW THEY LOSE:
BLUES: St. Louis averages the fewest goals per game of any franchise in playoff contention. Backes is aging, Alexander Steen was injured for much of the stretch run, and the likes of Fabbri and Dmitrij Jaskin are too young to be counted on as consistent threats. The scoring woes are a red flag GM Doug Armstrong chose not to address at the trade deadline. It’s a concern for a team allowing more scoring chances than normal this year. Experience is a perpetual playoff bugaboo for St. Louis, which hasn’t advanced past Round 2 in 15 years. Brouwer is the only Blue with a Cup ring. St. Louis hasn’t gotten elite playoff goaltending in the Hitchcock era. Allen graduated from good to great this season but had a pedestrian .904 save percentage in the 2015 playoffs, losing four of six starts.
BLACKHAWKS: Chicago has three Stanley Cups since 2010 but hasn’t won in consecutive years. Perhaps all the mileage takes a toll. The Hawks have averaged 16.7 playoff games per season since 2009-10, and Kane, Toews, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa have been roster pillars for each of those campaigns. Wear and tear is inevitable. Injuries have cost Hossa 14 games this season. The Hawks were the No. 4 team in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi last season, when they won a Cup, but they’ve slipped to middle of the pack.
BLUES: If the Blues’ core has a mental barrier preventing it from a deep playoff run, maybe an uncorrupted mind is key. Blueliner COLTON PARAYKO is a rookie and has no bad memories of playoff failures. His best assets will play well in the post-season. He’s a behemoth at 6-foot-6 and 226 pounds, which makes him well suited to battle the physically imposing Western Conference forwards. He possesses a fearsome slapshot, and his legs are fresh. He brings a skill set St. Louis has lacked in recent springs. He’s built to handle a bruising series.
BLACKHAWKS: DALE WEISE averaged just 11:12 of ice time in 28 playoff games with Montreal the past two seasons but still managed five goals, three of which were game winners, and 10 points. A heart-and-soul checker like him emerges in Chicago every post-season. He’s playing with more confidence than ever and had already scored a career-best 14 goals when the Hawks acquired him at the trade deadline. He’s a natural fit alongside Andrew Shaw, who plays a similar game. The pair will wreak havoc on opposing D-men in the corners and after whistles.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn Both teams feature an elite game-breaking right winger and an elite shutdown D-man, but with all due respect to Vladimir Tarasenko, the focus will be on shutting down the league’s Art Ross winner, Patrick Kane. That task will go to Alex Pietrangelo who has done a fine job of it over the last five seasons, keeping the goals and shots even at 5-on-5. Kane isn’t a great Corsi guy mostly because he keeps the puck on his stick as much as possible to create better chances. That’s what makes him an elite offensive driver, despite not generating as many chances. Pietrangelo is actually quite poor at suppressing shots relative to his team despite his reputation, but he might be able to force Kane into rushing shots he doesn’t want to take. If he can do that during this series, St. Louis might finally get by Chicago.
THN's pick: BLUES.