The most gut-wrenching time of year is back, and with it come two months of nightly non-stop action. The NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs start tonight and unlike most other sports, every team has a legitimate shot at hoisting the cup. Most recently it was the Chicago Blackhawks that raised the cup as the President’s Trophy winners, but the year before that it was the eight-seeded Los Angeles Kings. This year’s version of the Blackhawks didn’t fair so impressively as last year, but nevertheless will be a team with high expectations entering the postseason. The Blackhawks open this year’s defense of their title against the hated St. Louis Blues, and if you’ve been listening to talk radio, you can already tell that these two teams hate each other as much as the Hatfields and McCoys.
The Blues dominated the season series early, but the last two games showed a little bit of pushback as the Hawks won easily 4-0 and 4-2 at the United Center. Unfortunately because of the Blackhawks’ late-season swoon, the home-ice advantage resides at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis where the Blackhawks were winless on the year.
The biggest issue for both teams is the injury bug that has claimed star players for both sides. For the Blackhawks the injuries to Kane and Toews have been well documented. The Blues have been riddled with injury problems with Oshie, Backes, Tarasenko and Morrow all sidelined. In addition, the play of Ryan Miller has really dropped off since he was first acquired from Buffalo, and while a lot of people were thinking that trade may put the Blues over the top, for the most part the Blues were just as good with Halak in net.
The Blues have been flat out terrible over the last month of the season, and the only reason that’s been overlooked in this series is because Chicago has been just as poor. Early in the year most people would’ve thought this could be the pseudo-Western Conference Finals in the second round of the playoffs. As it stands both teams will be lucky to get out of this series alive given how physical it’s going to get. St. Louis probably won’t win, but they’re going to hurt Chicago. For Chicago – who’s already suffering from a slew of injuries to star players – this series is not going to help their prospects.
Chicago’s not nearly as physical as St. Louis, and although that didn’t matter in the cup finals last year against Boston, this is the opening round. Last year Chicago never had to face a physical team until those Bruins stood in the way of the cup. This year, because they don’t have the top record in the west, they’re going to have to run the gauntlet against a bunch of teams without the luxury of all swing games being at the UC.
It’s tough not to pick the Blackhawks in this series, and if they lose it’ll be because of the injuries which are still very much key to how this team performs in the playoffs. The problem isn’t this series, but in the next series and so on as they go deeper. St. Louis isn’t going to go away quietly, this series should by all means go the distance, and whoever comes out of it at the end will be extremely tired and banged up.