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2014 NHL playoffs preview: St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Andrew Shaw of the Chicago Blackhawks and Ryan Miller of the St. Louis Blues With the Blues in free fall, the pressure will be on goalie Ryan Miller (39) against the Blackhawks. (Getty Images)

By Brian Hamilton

Regular season recaps

 Oct. 9: Blues 3, Blackhawks 2

Oct. 17: Blues 3, Blackhawks 2 (OT)

Dec. 28: Blues 6, Blackhawks 5 (OT)

March 19: Blackhawks 4, Blues 0

April 6: Blackhawks 4, Blues 2

Notable injuries

Blues: C David Backes (foot, day to day), C Patrik Berglund (upper body, out indefinitely), LW Brenden Morrow (broken foot, out indefinitely), RW Vladimir Tarasenko (fractured right hand; out indefinitely), RW T.J. Oshie (upper body, expected to return for Game 1)

Blackhawks: C Jonathan Toews (upper body, expected to return for Game 1), RW Patrick Kane (knee, expected to return for Game 1)

Keys to a Blues victory

On March 29, St. Louis had a nine-point lead in the Central Division over the Avalanche, who were in third place. Then the Blues were buried under an avalanche of injuries. They went 2-7 in their last nine games, including six straight losses to end the regular season. Eight regulars missed the season finale against the Red Wings. The most important thing that St. Louis can do is to forget the past month and get healthy. Coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters on Sunday that every player who was out of the lineup would return to action, at some point, in the first round. Against the Blackhawks, the Blues' physicality and tight checking will be essential. St. Louis must also play responsibly on the back end against a Chicago team full of snipers. Goalie Ryan Miller will have to be much better in the net than he has been of late if the Blues are going to advance. He averaged 3.09 goals-against in his last 11 games, and his save percentage in April was a troubling .886. Also, the Blues' penalty kill, which ranked second in the league (85.7 percent), can't falter in the postseason.

Keys to a Blackhawks victory

Patrick Kane hasn't played since March 19, when he suffered a knee injury when the Blues' Brendan Morrow accidentally rolled into him. Jonathan Toews hasn't played since March 30, when he absorbed a big hit from the Penguins' Brooks Orpik. The two Conn Smythe Trophy winners (Kane, 2013; Toews 2010) combined for 57 goals and 80 assists this season. Chicago needs them to be sharp, immediately – especially Toews, whose two-way play is critical to slowing down the opposition's best line. But much of what will be important for the Blackhawks is what was important during their title runs: They must get quality play from a second-line center, perhaps veteran Michal Handzus (four goals, 12 assists in 2013-14) to start.; there must be third-line production and/or production from a surprise star, which means hoping for a resuscitation of left-winger Bryan Bickell (11 goals, minus-6 this sesason); and the penalty kill must be solid. Chicago shut down 30 straight power plays to start the playoffs last year, but its PK ranked only 19th in the NHL (81.5 percent) this season.

X-factors

The pick

Blackhawks in 6. It's tempting to believe that the Blues will benefit from a few days off to nurse their wounds and recharge, and that they will assume a backs-to-the-wall (or is it backs-to-the-boards?) mentality when the postseason begins. This is actually a matchup that favors a healthy St. Louis team. But this isn't a healthy St. Louis team. It's a club in a nosedive going up against the defending champs, who are getting back two of their top players, both of whom are presumably fresh. A couple of spectacular performances from Miller could turn the Blues' fortunes around, but is there any evidence that we can expect that? Chicago hasn't been as dominant this season as it was in 2012-13 – it would have been the No. 5 seed under the old playoff format – but the Blackhawks won four of their last six regular-season games. (They rested many of their regulars in the final two games, both losses.) Chicago's dangerous, mostly healthy roster is teeming with self-confidence. That's much more than the Blues can say, and much more than they can successfully handle.

Series schedule

Game 1: Apr. 17, @STL; 8pm (NBCSN, CBC)

Game 2: Apr. 19 @STL, 3pm (NBC, CBC)

Game 3: Apr. 21 @CHI, 8:30pm (CNBC, CBC)

Game 4: Apr. 23 @CHI, 9:30pm (NBCSN, CBC)

*Game 5: Apr. 25 @STL@ST, 8pm (NBCSN, CBC)

*Game 6: Apr. 27 @CHI, 3pm (NBC, CBC)

*Game 7: Apr. 29 @STL, time TBD (CBC)

MUIR: Western Conference storylines | Eastern Conference

More breakdowns: Stars-Ducks | Bruins-Red Wings | Canadiens-Lightning

Rangers-Flyers | Penguins-Blue Jackets | Avalanche-Wild | Kings-Sharks

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