ST. LOUIS - Just as last spring, the St. Louis Blues have the higher seed but the unenviable task of facing the defending Stanley Cup champion in the first round of the playoffs.
For the Blues to prevail against the Chicago Blackhawks in a matchup of 100-point teams and long-time rivals with Game 1 Thursday night, coach Ken Hitchcock says they'll need standout play from goalie Ryan Miller.
St. Louis lost in six games to the Kings and Jonathan Quick last year and acquired Miller from Buffalo in hopes of making a deep run.
"We're going to need our goalie to be great," Hitchcock said Wednesday. "He's shown the ability to get into people's heads if he plays the way he can."
Miller won seven of his first eight starts after coming from Buffalo, but finished 0-5 with a 3.56 goals-against average.
He'll try to thwart a lineup filled with scoring threats, especially with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews back from lengthy injury absences. Patrick Sharp led the Blackhawks with 34 goals and 78 points and was among five 20-plus goal scorers.
Plus, they've got a Cup winner, Corey Crawford, as the last line of defence.
"Crow doesn't get rattled. He's unflappable, especially at this time of the year," coach Joel Quenneville said.
Five things to watch in Blackhawks-Blues:
INJURY CENTRAL: The Blackhawks have no health issues. Stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are back from lengthy injury layoffs, leaving rust as the lone concern.
Kane hasn't played since March 19 and has been wearing a brace on his left knee. Toews missed the last six games after getting hit by Brooks Orpik in Pittsburgh on March 30.
"I think our focus is in this room and we're excited," defenceman Duncan Keith said. "We know we've got a chance and that's all we can ask for. It's just a matter of putting it all together."
Hitchcock anticipates some game-time decisions for the opener while piecing together a roster hit hard by injuries during a six-game losing streak to end the regular season. They could get game-changing forward Vladimir Tarasenko from a broken thumb that has sidelined him 15 games, and forwards David Backes and Vladimir Sobotka were back at practice Wednesday, but T.J. Oshie was not after skating a day earlier.
"I don't think you should read anything into our roster today," Hitchcock said. "What you saw today, there's a good chance won't be what you see tomorrow."
COACHING CLINIC: Two long-running success stories are calling the shots. Quenneville has led the Blackhawks to two Cups in three years and leads active coaches with 706 career wins after getting his first shot in St. Louis.
"I was fortunate to get started there," Quenneville said. "We had a lot of success. It's a fun place to live, fun place to coach, fun building in the playoffs as well. We never got the job done there. I'm sure they're excited about their team this year."
Hitchcock is second on the active wins list, won a Cup in 1999 with Dallas and has 72 postseason victories.
"It's a challenge," Hitchcock said. "We're both very much tilted toward the analytical side of coaching."
NO OT, NO SHOOTOUT: The Blues stood out in extra time, going 9-3, and were 12-7 in overtime with both teams playing 4 on 4. T.J. Oshie was 9 for 12 in the shootout, getting the best of goalies with an array of moves, and Alexander Steen was 5 for 10. Two of the shootout victories came against the Blackhawks. There are no such gimmicks in the playoffs.
DYNAMIC DefenceS: The Blackhawks may have the best transition game in the NHL led by Duncan Keith with a group adept at making quick reads and skating the puck out of danger under pressure. The Blues' back line has a pair of scoring threats who aren't afraid to jump into the play. Alex Pietrangelo tied his career best with 51 points and Kevin Shattenkirk set career bests in assists (35) and points (45).
RE-SET BUTTON: During their six-game losing streak, the Blues were shut out three times and outscored 22-5. The team is hoping a few days off to distance themselves from the bad taste, combined with the players set to return, will be enough to put them back on track.
"Any debris from the end of the season on any team that's left is gone," Hitchcock said.
The Blackhawks lost their last two and six of their last 11, but also have re-focused.
"It's a process," Sharp said. "You're not going to win a Stanley Cup in Game 1 of the playoffs."