The Chicago Blackhawks are going to be taking on the St. Louis Blues for the second time in three years when the playoffs open up on Wednesday night, and fans of both teams are eager for the matchup of long-time rivals.
With a tightly contested likely between teams that were separated by just four points in the standings, what will set the two sides apart?
To help answer that question, we’re highlighting five player matchups that could help swing the momentum in this series and get one of these teams started out right as they try to win the Stanley Cup.
Jonathan Toews vs. David Backes
There were questions about whether Backes would play in the series, but after practicing with the team on Tuesday, it does appear that the Blues captain will be in the fold, and he will be a critical piece as the Blues try to get revenge on the Blackhawks for their ouster from the postseason two years ago.
If Backes’ biggest question mark is his health, Toews’ is certainly his production, or lack thereof. Sure, he’s started to come on as the season has come to an end, but with the Blackhawks lacking home ice advantage in the series, they’ll have to assume that their second line will be held in check at times.
That means that Toews’ line is going to have to produce offensively, and they haven’t done that consistently this season. That all begins with Toews, who can help set the table for Marian Hossa and Andrew Ladd and make the defensive plays necessary to spring breaks in transition.
Patrick Kane vs. Vladimir Tarasenko
It’s not every day that fans are treated to a series with two of the most explosive players in the NHL on the same sheet of ice, and these two certainly qualify as must-watch talent.
Kane has been red hot in recent weeks, winning Second Star of the Week honors from the NHL for his performance in the final seven days of the regular season, and he’s been playing at a high level all season. The only question about Kane is whether or not seeing fewer power plays (as officials tend to call fewer penalties during the playoffs) will impact that production, and the Blues’ second-ranked penalty killing unit could also play a role there as well.
As for Tarasenko, he averaged nearly a point per game during the season, scoring 12 power play goals to lead the Blues and adding 12 power play helpers. He is a very strong player both at even strength and on the man-advantage, but the only question about him is whether or not his linemates are of the same quality as Kane’s. Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz are both good players, but are they of the same caliber (and as offensively dangerous) as a guy like Artemi Panarin?
Duncan Keith vs. Alex Pietrangelo
Keith is going to miss the first game of the series thanks to his suspension, so the Hawks are already operating at a disadvantage defensively. Once he returns however, these are the two players that are most capable of affecting the game at both ends of the ice from the blue line, and therefore are the ones most worth watching.
For Keith, concerns about potential injury swirled around him as he struggled at times with his speed and footwork, but that could certainly be helped by his time off the ice for the Blackhawks. Missing six games at this stage in the game will give him the ability to play the 30-plus minutes a night that Joel Quenneville will expect from him in the postseason, and if he can play effectively as a defensive presence and a stretch-passer for the transition offense, then he instantly becomes someone the Blues have to gameplan for.
As for Pietrangelo, he too has the ability to impact the game at both ends of the ice, as he did during the Blues’ victory last week over the Blackhawks. He is a dynamic player who skates smoothly and breaks up plays routinely as they enter the offensive zone. The Hawks will have to make sure to take mind of where he is, as his positioning is impeccable and his nose for offense allowed him to rack up 30 assists for the Blues this season.
Corey Crawford vs. Brian Elliott
If this matchup had taken place in January, there’d be no doubt about which goaltender would win this battle, as Crawford was playing at a Vezina-caliber level.
Now, after Crawford missed some time with an upper body injury, that debate is much more open-ended. Is the goaltender fully healthy? Will the rust of missing time impact him as the postseason begins? Will we see another situation where Quenneville moves to Darling if Crawford struggles in the first two games of the series?
Elliott has hit a few speedbumps in recent games, giving up four goals to the Capitals in a game that could have won the Central Division for the Blues on Saturday and giving up five goals to the Boston Bruins in an early-April contest. Aside from those games, the goaltender has been really solid, giving up just two goals or fewer in six of his last eight contests.
The question of course is whether or not he can keep that up against a Blackhawks offense that has seemed to hit its stride in recent games. Consistent pressure is always necessary against a goaltender, but will be especially critical against Elliott.
Joel Quenneville vs. Ken Hitchcock
Two of the winningest coaches in NHL history will do battle yet again in this series as Quenneville looks to once again send Hitchcock home without a Stanley Cup championship.
For the Blackhawks and Quenneville, being able to manage defensive minutes to help mask blue line deficiencies will be a key. This team won’t have the advantage of dictating line matchups in the first two games of the series, but Quenneville’s penchant for quick changes helps minimize the impact there, and he’ll have to be in top form in this one.
As for Hitchcock, he’s had some difficulty in the past in terms of making in-series adjustments, and he’ll have to do a better job of that against the Blackhawks. The deeper Chicago gets into a series, the better they tend to play better, and if they are able to do that again here, then the Blues will have to counter with some moves of their own.