Game Time: 7:00PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN, NBCSN, CBC (Anglo), RDS2 (Franco), WGN-AM 720
Mung: St. Louis Game Time
When the new playoff format was announced under the plans for realignment, even dating back to the first iteration of the plan nearly two years ago, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Hawks and Blues would collide in the playoffs on an annual basis. In fact, creating and amplifying that kind of rivalry was basically the point of the new format. However, it’s unlikely that anyone had this series pegged for the first round, including these two teams themselves.
Coming into Game 1 tonight, the Blues have lost 6 straight, all in regulation, and 7 of their last 10. That slide allowed the upstart and math-defying Avalanche to usurp the crown from this latest iteration of the Central division. An optimist would point to the Blues being beset by injuries during this time, with David Backes, Timothy Leif, Vlad Tarasenko, Alex Steen, and Alex Pietrangelo all missing time during this stretch. But all except TL figure to be in the lineup tonight, including Tarasenko’s first action in a month returning from a broken hand.
And while these injuries certainly haven’t helped the Blues’ cause, there might be more dangerous problems lurking. First and foremost, their marquee trade acquisition, “Big Game Goalie” Ryan Miller, has flat out sucked to high heaven since the initial sheen has worn off. Since joining the Blues, Miller has a .903 save percentage in 19 games, and an .885 since the calendar turned to April. And it’s not exactly like he’s been inundated with work, as the Blues allow a mere 26.4 shots per game, good for third league wide. Of course, he still has the ability to steal a game, but his consistent dominance is getting further into the rearview now 3 months shy of 34, and his last playoff series win 7 years ago. With no investment past this spring, look for Jiminy Glick to have a quick hook and throw Brian Elliott out there, who has some pretty solid numbers at 1.96GAA and .922sv% in a backup role in spite of the fact that he is still and will always be Brian Elliott.
Even if Miller is flailing, he still can rely on one of the deeper bluelines around in front of him, starting with the top pairing of Jabe O’Meester and Alex Pietrangelo, who see the toughest assignments for the Blues game in, game out. Both are tall, rangy, and swift if not all that physical. And on the second pairing, Kevin Shattenkirk can really make things go with his offensive instincts which more than make up for whatever shortcomings he has in his own end. Past that, however, it really can be feeding time for Hawk forwards with the bejowled Roman Polak, partnered tonight with the steady if unspectacular Jordan Leopold, and Shat’s partner, toilet baby Barret Jackman, whose shortcomings have been covered.
With Timothy Leif still out, Hitch is tossing Steve Ott on the top line with Backes and Steen for reasons yet discernable other than making that unit even more ornery. Jaden Schwartz, Vlad “Don’t Call Me Frank” Sobotka, and Vlad Tarasenko make up the second and arguably most dangerous line for the Blues, but they’re all a bit light in the ass, and there’s no clear picture yet how Tarasenko’s hand will respond or how he’ll deal with the finite space in the playoffs. Below that is where things start to get gross with a third line of Morrow, Roy, and Purina Boy Ryan Reaves, and a fourth of Porter, Lapierre, and Cracknell. Lapierre can win a draw, and Cracknell had himself a night at the UC a while back, but for the most part that group is left wanting for finish and creativity.
As for Our Men of Four Feathers, they’ll welcome the return of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews tonight, though the full extent of their actual health is open for debate. They’ll return split up in the line combinations once again, with Quenneville opting to make Hitchcock decide who to have to match up against with his forward corps somewhat depleted. So he’ll have to choose between having Petro and Jabe face Toews, Saad, and Versteeg, the group of Hossa, Zus, and Sharp, or Kane, Bickell, and Shaw. While these combinations aren’t necessarily ideal to maximize everyone’s respective individual skill sets, there’s at least a clear thought process behind doing it, especially on the road, and Handzus is given as good a support system in his linemates as possible.
Conversely, look for Quenneville to get Hjalmarsson and Oduya try to get out against the Tarasenko and Schwartz line, as that might be the only skilled scoring line outside of Montreal where the Swedes have a distinct size advantage. That should leave Keith and Seabrook to deal with the slower, but in no way slow in general Backes line. And again this will all hinge on how much Q wants or is even able to chase matchups on the road. And, as usual, this will all be in front of Corey Crawford, whose .925 regular season even strength save percentage should be more than enough to buoy the Hawks provided they stay out of the box.
While the Blues are reeling, there is a school of thought that some of their numbers can and will find their own level again after taking a precipitous dip. This is a very good team, no matter how disgusting it is to admit, and giving them any opportunity now with the cavalry returning is to invite peril. But the story still remains the same for these two teams no matter the situation. Absorb the forecheck and find space behind the committed forwards to start a 5 man breakout, allow them to take stupid penalties and perhaps most importantly, weather the opening storm, where the locals will be screaming for blood through their six teeth. The characters might be different, but the plan, the story, and the ultimate goal all remain the same. Let’s Go Hawks.