With the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues set to square off in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, Madhouse Enforcer is taking a look at some of the key matchups that will help decide the series between these Central Division rivals.
Today’s matchup is one of captains who are recovering from injuries that hampered them at the end of the regular season, as David Backes and Jonathan Toews butt heads.
As the 2013-14 regular season came to an end, the Blackhawks and Blues both looked on as the Colorado Avalanche surged past them and won the Central Division championship. The Blues in particular looked putrid down the stretch, losing their last six games in a row and a slew of players to the injury bug in the process. The Blackhawks also had some serious injuries, with Toews and Patrick Kane missing chunks of time, but they reeled off a four game winning streak before quietly dropping their last two games as they rested starters on their final road trip.
Backes was one of the Blues who missed time during the dwindling days of the season, leaving an April 8th game against the Washington Capitals with a foot injury. There was some worry that the injury could put his status for Game 1 against the Blackhawks in doubt, but he has been practicing with the team and is expected to be on the ice when the game begins.
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As for Toews, he missed the final six games of the regular season for the Hawks with an upper body injury that he suffered on a big hit from Brooks Orpik against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Toews has been skating since late last week, and like Backes is expected to be on his team’s top line when the series gets going at Scottrade Center.
Backes’ play down the stretch for St. Louis mirrored the team’s late swoon. In his final five games (including an abbreviated appearance against the Capitals), Backes had just one assist, racked up 22 penalty minutes and only had nine shots on goal. He put up those pedestrian numbers despite playing nearly 20 minutes per game in four of those contests, and his struggles on offense led to a serious power outage for the team’s scoring attack.
When Toews went down with his arm injury, he was certainly cooling off after a red-hot start to the month of March, but he was still contributing despite his struggles. In his final five games, the Hawks’ captain had two assists and 10 shots on goal, but his team did lose four of those five games as they slipped into the third spot in the Central Division standings.
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With all of those numbers floating around in our heads, an important question has to be asked as the two teams get ready to face each other with their returning stars in tow: how will Backes and Toews fare as they jump back into the lineup, and will either of them have a big impact on the series, at least at the beginning?
In the case of both players, they will be jumping right back into top line roles for their teams. Backes was skating with Alexander Steen and Steve Ott on Thursday during the morning skate, and if Ken Hitchcock opts to keep that line arrangement going into the contest, then Backes’ role is going to be the same as it always is: get to the front of the net, put shots on goal, and hit anything that’s wearing a white jersey.
Toews will also be on the top line, skating with Kris Versteeg and Brandon Saad as the team prepares to face the Blues, and his role is similar to that of Backes. His defensive skills make him one of the team’s most important forwards, and his ability to pass the puck with the same prowess as he can shoot it makes him a dangerous threat that is hard to game plan against.
Since both players are coming off of injuries, and since both Hitchcock and Joel Quenneville are trying to juggle lines to welcome players back into the rotation, it’s hard to pick a winner between the two captains if we’re asking which of them has the edge in this series. Backes historically has played Toews hard, using his brute strength to force the Hawks’ leader off the puck, but Toews has generally been able to respond with some serious scoring punch in the face of those confrontations.
If Backes is able to get Toews off his game from the puck drop on Thursday, then he will win this matchup easily. In the more likely event that Toews can withstand the initial burst, he will have a bit of an edge in this matchup of stars.