Today is the day. The Blackhawks no longer are in possession of Lord Stanley’s Cup as 15 other teams set off on the long road to claim the silver chalice.
As the Blackhawks are set to take on the St. Louis Blues tonight, let’s preview several factors that will be key to winning this series.
Health concerns surround both teams as they enter tonight’s Game 1 matchup. Two different tales are told here even though the teams have both faced major post-Olympic break injuries. For the Hawks, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Michal Roszival, Johnny Oduya, and Brandon Saad have missed action due to injury. For the Blues Vladimir Tarasenko, David Backes, TJ Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, and Brendan Morrow have missed time.
The difference between the two? The Hawks have gone 4-2 in their past six games while the Blues have gone 0-6. What this shows me is the Blackhawks depth is much better suited to handle injuries. As we’ve seen time and time again, no one leaves the playoffs with a clean bill of health and with the players mentioned above likely not completely 100%, the depth of each team will prove to push one team over the edge. In this scenario, I’m giving the advantage to the Blackhawks.
Physicality vs. Possesion
This lead up to this series is reminiscent of last year’s matchup against the Kings and the Bruins. People were quick to dismiss the Blackhawks due to their emphasis on a possession game over a physical one. The Kings and Bruins were supposed to check the Hawks out of the arena and make them afraid to go to the net where dirty goals are scored. We all know what happened with that one.
The Blues play a very similar style game to the Kings and the Bruins. With the overall skill level nowhere near that of the Blackhawks, the Blues rely on a physical game by using their size to check and go down low near the net to hammer in rebounds and deflections. What the Hawks victory last year showed me is that a possession game will always beat a physical game in the long run.
This year is no different, as long as the Hawks don’t try and out hit the Blues. The old adage goes that physical teams will wear the other team out in a long series. There is a reason that is considered an old saying. The Blackhawks speed and possession game means their opponents are chasing them throughout the game and over the course of a seven game series, that’s going to cause more fatigue than getting checked a couple times a game.
It’s cliche to say, but goaltending can carry a team to the Cup, or it can destroy it’s chances. Both Ryan Miller & Corey Crawford are battle tested goals that have come through on the world’s biggest stages.
That being said, Crawford has one thing Miller doesn’t, a Stanley Cup. Many will point to Miller’s performance at the 2010 Olympic games to show his ability to perform in the clutch. I won’t disagree with that at all, but the same thing has been said about Roberto Luongo.
Miller hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2011 with the Buffalo Sabres when he gave up 20 goals in seven games and had a 2.93 GAA. He has also struggled down the stretch, giving up three or more goals in many of his recent outings. Under Ken Hitchcock, the Blues have always been a team that tries to grind out a one goal lead instead of going on the offensive. This is largely due to their roster composition.
I would say there is much more pressure on Miller to carry his team than there is for Corey Crawford. All doubts regarding Crawford have been erased during last year’s run to the Stanley Cup. In a seven game series, Miller is simply going to be relied upon more to steal a game given the Blackhawks tendencies to possess the puck and out-shoot their opponents. With a roster that is nowhere near as skilled as the Blackhawks, Corey Crawford’s main concern is making the saves when it counts as the Blues are not as likely as the Hawks to sustain a great deal of offensive zone pressure.
Six weeks ago this matchup would have been considered as two juggernauts going head to head for a trip to the Western Conference Finals. Six weeks later, the Blues have hobbled into the playoffs as the Blackhawks have started to gain steam.
Both teams have injuries coming into this matchup and that will be no excuse for either team. However, the Blackhawks depth over the past six weeks has picked up the slack while St. Louis’ hasn’t. The Blues record against playoff teams this year has been near the bottom, while the Hawks rank near the top.
Unless Ryan Miller is able to stand on his head and the Blackhawks go back to their ways of not playing a 60 minute game, I have the Hawks winning this series in six.
Hawks in 6.