The Chicago Blackhawks now know that they will be taking on the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs. The series won’t start until Thursday in St. Louis but both teams have embarked on similar paths.
At the start of the season, two of the heavy favorites for the Stanley Cup were the Blackhawks and Blues. It was expected that the two teams would meet in the second round of the playoffs.
However, the struggles of both teams are the reason that this anticipated clash is happening sooner than expected.
The Blackhawks had some struggles down the stretch after the Olympics as they went 7-7-1 in their first fifteen games and overall went 11-10-1 after coming back from Sochi. The Blackhawks had a very similar experience as well in 2010 but it didn’t affect their seeding. After winning their first four games in April, the Blackhawks have lost their last two games allowing 11 goals. The Blackhawks enter the playoffs having lost 6 of their last 11 games.
Meanwhile, the Blues surged to the Central division lead after being tied with the Blackhawks heading into the Olympic break. They won 5 in a row and 8 of 9 taking 17 of a possible 18 points to start March. After winning 5 of 6 to end March and begin April, the Blues seemed destined for the number one seed in the Western Conference. On April 3, the Blues had 111 points and were seven points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche for first in the Central division. The Blues lost six games in a row to end the season and blew the division. In those 6 games, the Blues have allowed 22 goals and scored 5 goals. They have been shutout three times in those six games including their final two games.
Neither team is playing well heading into this series. Part of the reason behind that can be injuries.
The Blackhawks have been without Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for the past six games. Both are expected to be healthy and return to start the series. Kane has been skating for the past couple of days and Toews is recovering from an upper arm injury.
On the other side, the Blues have a list of walking wounded that would make an NFL injury list look ashamed. TJ Oshie and Patrick Berglund went down with injuries this week to add to the list. David Backes, Brendan Morrow, Vladimir Sobotka and Vladimir Tarasenko are all out with injuries. Everyone is expected to be available at some point during the series except for Tarasenko who is out with a hand injury.
Whichever team can overcome the injuries will most likely be the one that advances to the next round.
The final component is that neither team has been playing that great.
The Blackhawks continue to suffer from defensive breakdowns. Too often in the month of March were there odd man rushes against Corey Crawford. He can only stop so much and a big help would be if the defense stops turning over the puck in the neutral zone. The game against the Pittsburgh Penguins was a perfect example of the Blackhawks struggling on defense. Crawford did not play well in his final regular season game against Washington as he allowed a couple of softies.
For the Blues, Ryan Miller has not done enough to bail out the Blues in the recent weeks. Giving up four goals when the Blues outshoot the Minnesota Wild 45-15 in a 4-2 loss is not the way to inspire confidence in your defense heading into the playoffs. But there were games where the Blues were outshot by at least ten and did not appear to be fully into the game.
There are plenty of similarities for the Blues and Blackhawks. They both sent 10 players to the Olympics and fatigue definitely may have been a factor in the decline of both teams. But shaky goaltending, late season swoons and injuries have led to a first round pairing that no one saw coming. Both teams are very similar and have had the same arc to their season leading to their matchup in the first round.
The team that overcomes all the contributing factors to this matchup quicker will be heading to the second round.