By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) Instead of writing yet another Blackhawks-Blues series preview as the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway, I decided to take questions from listeners and Twitter followers and do a series mailbag. But before I answer those questions, a couple of quick thoughts on the series.
From the beginning of the season, the Blackhawks-Blues matchup seemed totally inevitable. Both were at or near the top of the Western Conference throughout the entire season, and with the new divisional playoff format, both teams knew this matchup was coming. Had you asked about the Blackhawks’ chances in a head-to-head series with the Blues a month ago, I don’t know if you would have liked my answer. The Blues, at that point, were the strongest team in the NHL.
Since then, they’ve been injured, the goaltending has been subpar and they’ve been, well, bad. If there was ever a “good time” to face the Blues, it’s now. They’re struggling. They’re hurting. They’re vulnerable.
On Tuesday, Chicago had its first practice ahead of the series with St. Louis. Here’s what the lines looked like:
First line: Versteeg-Toews-Saad
Second line: Sharp-Handzus-Hossa
Third line: Bickell-Shaw-Kane
Fourth line: Bollig-Kruger-Smith
More on this later. Now to the mailbag questions:
Joseph E.: If/when the Blues begin to take physical liberties/cheap shot people, how should the Hawks react?
Jay Z: When the Blues begin being the Blues, the Blackhawks should respond by playing the speed-and-puck-possession game that’s won them two of the last four Stanley Cups. If the Blues want to spend the entire series in the penalty box, then by all means, the Blackhawks should allow them to do so. Chicago’s power play is going to be crucial in this series, as it will get its chances. Scoring and then holding leads will be the key to getting the Blues out of their goonish ways and force them to open up their game. That plays directly into the Blackhawks’ hands. Open ice = opportunity for the Chicago forwards.
Jerry Jeff W.: Will Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews be able to step right in and play at a high level or will it take a couple of games?
JZ : This is the million dollar question. They’ve both been skating since late last week and practiced with the team Tuesday. All systems are go for both to return for Game 1 on Thursday. I think it’s hard to believe there won’t be at least a little bit of rust, but I don’t think it will linger very long. Both Toews and Kane are elite players. Even if their timing is off by a hair, they’re going to be two of the better players on the ice. I’d be foolish to expect domination from the first shift they take, but I wouldn’t panic if things don’t look perfect right away.
Jeff K. and Jason T. both ask about Jeremy Morin, and his role in the first round …
JZ : Morin, aside from Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, has been the best Blackhawk since he was inserted into the lineup on March 21. He’s scoring, hitting and creating offense. Unfortunately, it appears (unsurprisingly) that coach Joel Quenneville will opt for his veteran security blankets, Kris Versteeg and Michal Handzus, at least for Game 1.
If Morin does get into a game, it’s a safe assumption that Chicago will be struggling to score. Handzus would be the prime candidate to sit should Morin get a chance.
If the Hawks do advance and defeat the Blues, I think Morin gets consideration for the second round, especially if the opponent is the speedy Colorado Avalanche. With the Blues being the big, plodding, physical team they are, it appears Quenneville is opting for grinders in this series.
Brian M.: Given the recent poor play of the Blues, what should be the Hawks’ main concern in this series?
JZ: I don’t think Chicago fans should worry about the Blackhawks taking the Blues lightly. They know how strong and dangerous the Blues are, first hand. The worst-case scenario would be a blowout Blues win in Game 1. If the Blues light up the Blackhawks, that lingering cloud of doubt suddenly disappears for St. Louis. The Blackhawks want the Blues chasing. I think winning Game 1 would be a huge boost for the Blues, while a loss could sink them deeper into that funk.
Schmutzie: Is there any matchup in the first round that suggests the new playoff format isn’t working as the league intended?
I actually don’t think so. When I look up and down the matchups, I don’t see a huge mismatch. Even Columbus, in my opinion, has a chance of taking down Pittsburgh. The total effect of the new format won’t be felt right away, but in two or three years, when the Blackhawks and Blues or Flyers and Rangers have met every year, you’ll see hatred-filled rivalries — and that’s what the NHL is trying to create. Familiarity breeds contempt. Look no further than the Blackhawks/Canucks rivalry.
Fred : Aside from David Backes vs. Toews, what do you see as the critical line/player matchup?
The Blues top defensive unit of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester is very good. They will likely draw either the Toews line or the Handzus line listed above. I wonder how the rest of the Blues D will fare against the Blackhawks’ offensive depth. Kevin Shattenkirk and Barret Jackman, the Blues’ second pair, is solid, but Shattenkirk isn’t a strong defender, while Jackman has lost a step later in his career. Aside from trying to push the Blackhawks around, I don’t know how they’re going to slow down whatever line features Patrick Kane.
John Faker asks a number of important questions, so I’ll knock them out one by one …
JF: On average, how many dogs do you think David Backes murders each year?
JZ : Six or seven, depending on weather patterns.
JF: How much dumpster food does Ryan Reaves consume before each game?
JZ : It depends on the city. In Chicago, the food is much heartier than, say, Phoenix. In Chicago he only needs a dumpster or two. In lesser food cities, it could be as many as three.
JF: Why is “American Hero” T.J. Oshie so bad when other NHL players are on the ice with him?
JZ : How dare you besmirch the good name of a dude who’s really good at the coin flippy thing the NHL loves so much?
Thanks for taking the time to read the mailbag. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @jayzawaski670. I’ll be actively tweeting during every game. I will also feature period wrap-ups after every period of the series on my Sulia page.