A few weeks ago, just about any NHL expert or hardcore fan would have assumed that the Chicago Blackhawks and Colorado Avalanche would spend the closing stretch of the season battling it out for the second seed in the Central Division, while the St. Louis Blues would casually waltz toward a division title.
Instead, the Blues ended up losing their final six games in a row while the Avalanche reeled off an 8-1-1 record in their final ten games, and the Avalanche became the first team in 30 years to win a division title in the season after they selected first overall in the NHL Entry Draft. The Avalanche will face the Minnesota Wild in the first round, while the Blues were regulated to the second slot in the Central, meaning that they will open the playoffs on home ice against the Blackhawks.
While the Blues’ rough stretch has seen some very poor play, they haven’t been helped by a rash of injuries that they suffered in those closing games. David Backes, TJ Oshie, and Alex Pietrangelo all missed games, and while the former two will likely be back in Game 1 against the Blackhawks, it’s unclear if the Norris-caliber defenseman Pietrangelo will be in. The Blues also will likely be without Patrick Berglund and Brenden Morrow (who accidentally injured Patrick Kane in the last meeting between these two teams) when the series begins.
As for the Blackhawks, they also have been dealing with their fair share of injury troubles, but they too should be getting healthier as the postseason begins. Both Kane and Jonathan Toews are expected to be in the lineup when the series kicks off later this week, and the team also has gotten back players like Bryan Bickell, Johnny Oduya, and Michal Rozsival in recent weeks after they missed time with injuries.
Despite the Hawks’ advantage on the injury front however (and their advantage in terms of sheer momentum, as they had reeled off four wins in a row before dropping two meaningless games to end the season), they can’t be too overconfident against a Blues team that is eager to prove that they belong in the discussion as a legitimate NHL contender. Under the direction of coach Ken Hitchcock, the team has become one of the deepest defensive teams in the league, and with scoring threats like Backes and Alexander Steen in the lineup, they can pot their fair share of goals too.
That being said, the Hawks aren’t a team liable to overestimate anyone, especially after the close call they had a season ago. After romping through the first round of the playoffs against the Minnesota Wild in five games, the Hawks went down three games to one against the underdog Detroit Red Wings. The Hawks ultimately came back to win that series and the Stanley Cup a few weeks later, but the fact of the matter remains that no team in the postseason is ever a surefire loser.
All of that aside, the NHL has to be pleased that their new divisional format for the postseason has yielded such great matchups. The Blues and Blackhawks have been bitter rivals for years now, as have the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings in the West. They also got an Original Six battle in the East, with the President’s Trophy winning Boston Bruins taking on the Detroit Red Wings in round one. A matchup between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers will also draw plenty of attention, as will an intriguing matchup between the highly favored Pittsburgh Penguins and dangerous Columbus Blue Jackets.
These playoffs are sure to be fascinating, as they are every year, but with divisional rivals battling and teams looking to prove themselves all over the bracket, there is going to be a lot to enjoy over the next couple of months.