Blackhawks-Blues Series Preview

Blackhawks-Blues Series Preview

Trying to become the first team in the salary-cap era to capture back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Blackhawks may discover that their biggest potential roadblock arrives right away.

Tomorrow night, a furious rivalry gets renewed at Scottrade Center. Central Division stalwarts St. Louis and Chicago will drop the puck in the evening’s final contest. According to online sports book Bovada.lv, Ken Hitchcock’s squad enjoys odds of -110 to finally vanquish its perpetual nemesis.

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The Blackhawks, naturally, possess identical odds of -110 to take the series. While Joel Quenneville’s players finished four points behind the Blues in the standings, Chi-Town clearly carries the pedigree – and track record – into this matchup. In 2014, Patrick Kane and company ousted the Note in six contests en route to reaching the Western Conference finals.

Last season obviously produced an even better prize. Yet as the Windy City held another parade, St. Louis watched in agony. The Blues had suffered a first-round flameout, again, succumbing to the Minnesota Wild. Superb right wing Vladimir Tarasenko accounted for six of the club’s 14 goals, while those around him squandered home-ice advantage.

Thanks to an exquisite final month, St. Louis receives the same luxury in 2016. With the exception of David Backes (lower body) and Steve Ott (colitis), everybody’s operating at full health, too. Injuries came in waves throughout the regular season, but Hitchcock pushed so many of the right buttons that the West’s top seed wasn’t claimed by Dallas until last Saturday.

Chicago’s not ready to cry for the enemy. The Blackhawks themselves lost countless key contributors, including goalie Corey Crawford and forward Marian Hossa, for prolonged stretches. Crawford’s a go for Game 1, however, and his presence radically changes the equation. The 31-year-old went 9-0-0 with a 1.88 GAA and .946 save percentage during the Blackhawks’ franchise-record 12-game winning streak from Dec. 19-Jan. 19. When healthy, he’s simply a cut above the bulk of the competition.

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The Blues’ Brian Elliott (23-8-6) also enjoyed an accolade-filled campaign. Jake Allen’s extended absence throughout the second half ensured frequent starts for the two-time All-Star, who responded in kind. Elliott certainly benefits from a stout blue line in front of him as well. Veteran mainstays such as Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk continue to perform the heavy lifting, but rookies Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson are consistently amassing longer, crucial shifts.

Enough, though, with the praise and puck-moving compliments – can these defensemen stand up to Chicago’s preposterously accomplished stars up front? Kane just paced the entire league in scoring, surpassing 100 points for the first time. Captain Jonathan Toews overcame an upper-body ailment to pot 28 goals, and Artemi Panarin led all rooks in tallies (30) and assists (47).

Still, it would be unwise to undersell the Note’s own prolific talent. Tarasenko (40 goals) probably represents the second-scariest sniper in the NHL behind Alexander Ovechkin. Paul Stastny (19 points since March 9), two-way dynamo Alexander Steen and Jaden Schwartz provide excellent support.

The difference here could well boil down to personnel on D, and that’s where the Blackhawks look vulnerable. General manager Stan Bowman failed to find a proper replacement for Johnny Oduya, which left an irreparable void behind Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. To worsen matters, Keith will remain suspended for Wednesday’s opener. If the Blues don’t pull through now, well, expect massive turnover in the months ahead.

SERIES NHL FREE PICK: BLUES -110

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