The Blackhawks look vulnerable and the Blues know change is coming if they lose another first round series.
Regular Season Recap
Nov. 4: Blues 6, Blackhawks 5 (OT)
Nov. 14: Blackhawks 4, Blues 2
Jan. 24: Blackhawks 2, Blues 0
March 9: Blues 3, Blackhawks 2 (SO)
April 7: Blues 2, Blackhawks 1 (OT)
Blues: F Steve Ott (colitis, day-to-day), C David Backes (lower body, day-to-day), RW Troy Brouwer (undisclosed, day-to-day)
Note: D Duncan Keith (suspension) will miss Game 1 of the series.
Keys to a Blues victory
For the Blues to have any chance against the battle-tested defending Stanley Cup champions, they need to put their own history of playoff failure behind them. Three consecutive first-round ousters have left open wounds. The Blues' mental toughness will be tested by a Chicago team that led the league with 41 wins when scoring first. To its credit, St. Louis boasted a .447 winning percentage after giving up the first goal during the regular season, the fourth-best mark in the NHL, but this series will require a whole different level of resilience. No player will feel that pressure more than Brian Elliott. If he plays like the goalie who finished atop the leader board with a .930 save percentage and posted a 2.07 goals-against average that ranked second only to Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop (2.06), the Blues can go head to head with the champs. But if he looks anything like the one with the career playoff save percentage of .897, they're in trouble.
Elliott will be helped by a defense that appears deeper, stronger and more mobile than ever with the emergence of youngsters Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson. The ability of the D to slow down Chicago's top two units will be critical, as will its efforts to key the possession game. The Blues ranked seventh in the league at 52% to Chicago's 50.7% (15th), but neither side had a particularly high shooting percentage (Blues edge: 7.0% to 6.8%). Holding the puck, and making the most of their opportunities could be the difference. Keep an eye on Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues sniper had four goals in his final five games, including his career-high 40th in their finale. He's been dynamite in the playoffs, scoring 10 times in his previous 12 games, as well as against the Hawks, scoring five times in five games against Chicago this season.
Keys to an Blackhawks victory
If the Blackhawks are to become the first team in the salary-cap era to win back-to-back Stanley Cups they'll have to overcome some lousy underlying numbers, questionable depth on the back end and a history that's seen their core players skating in more games over the past seven seasons than anyone else. That's a rocky path that starts with goaltender Corey Crawford. Although he's arguably been their MVP this season, Crawford hasn't looked particularly sharp of late. He's allowed 17 goals in his past five appearances with a save percentage of just .873. That's not going to get it done. He'll have to be in midseason form for the Hawks to stay in the running. Their defense is thinner than ever, with only Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson as proven commodities. That puts the pressure on youngsters Trevor van Riemsdyk and Viktor Svedberg to play a heavy load of reliable minutes against a Blues team that will be pounding them into the glass at every opportunity. They'll have to manage possession better and be smarter about getting pucks to the net.
Up front, the Hawks will need Artem Anisimov to regain his pre-injury form. He has four points in three games this month, but posted just three assists in nine games before that stretch. A reliable second line center between Art Ross winner Patrick Kane and likely Calder honoree Artemi Panarin will be key to challenging St. Louis' rock solid blueline. Marian Hossa could be another spark plug. The veteran winger will return to action for Game 1 after playing in just 10 of Chicago's final 33 regular-season contests. At 37, the time off may have been exactly what he needed. And the Hawks need him: They're 40-9 over the past seven postseasons when he gets at least one point. Stealing one of the first two games in St. Louis is imperative—even better if they can snag Game 1 while Keith is suspended. The Hawks have been a solid playoff road team under coach Joel Quenneville, going 26-23. They've also won at least one road game in 17 consecutive playoff series. If they can get a split and put the Blues on their heels, they might be able to end this thing quickly.
Never bet against the champs, right? This might be the exception. The Hawks have played as if they were killing time the past couple months, rarely displaying the sort of cohesive mentality that's made them so successful in the past. The Blues, on the other hand, look young, fast and hungry. And they know changes are coming if they drop another first-round series. That may be all the motivation they need to slay the dragon. Blues in seven.