Zawaski: Blackhawks-Blues Series Preview

By Jay Zawaski–

(CBS) On the day after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last June, I asked Matt Spiegel to remind me that the NHL regular season doesn’t matter, at least not when it comes to these Blackhawks. Chicago’s 2014-’15 regular season was fine — uninspiring and full of typical highs and lows.

When those playoffs began, no one really knew what to make of the Blackhawks’ chances. There were a lot of question marks and a less-than-impressive start in Game 1 in Nashville. But when the smoke cleared and the rust was shaken off, the Blackhawks hoisted the Cup for the third time since 2010.

Throughout this season, I’ve been trying to remind myself of the mantra of a few months past: “The regular season doesn’t matter.”

Aside from winger Patrick Kane’s historic season, Artemi Panarin’s incredible rookie campaign and that little 12-game winning streak, this year has felt a little … ehh.

The Hawks have struggled against their division rivals, including a 6-10-4 record against Central Division playoff teams.

“The regular season doesn’t matter.”

The Hawks’ possession numbers have been down this season. Last season, at even strength, the Hawks had a 53.6 percent five-on-five even strength Corsi. This year, it’s 50.7 percent.

Last season, the Hawks were plus-21 in five-on-five even-strength goals scored. This year, they’re minus-6.

“The regular season doesn’t matter.”

For the St. Louis Blues, that same mantra has applied, but not in the way Ken Hitchcock’s team would prefer. The Blues have seen first-round exits for the last three seasons. In those years, the Blues have recorded 60 points in the lockout-shortened 48-game season, 111 points and 109 points. This year, they finished with 107 points.

The Blues have the talent it takes to win a Stanley Cup but need to overcome themselves to win. They’ve shown a tendency to derail and lose their collective cools when it starts going wrong. Captain David Backes is one of the best power forwards in the league but is also one of the quickest to lose his mind and do something stupid when it begins to spiral.

Aside from their own mistakes, the Blues have to deal with the weight of the franchise never winning a Cup. Every year that passes, that pressure gets worse and worse, especially when the expectations are so high after wonderful regular-season performances.

As the Blackhawks and Blues get under with Game 1 on Wednesday night in St. Louis, let’s take a look at the team comparisons.

Possession numbers (five-on-five even strength)
St. Louis: 52.0 percent
Chicago: 50.7 percent

Goals for/against
St. Louis: 224/201 (+23)
Chicago: 235/209 (+26)

Top scorers
St. Louis
Vladimir Tarasenko –40 goals, 34 assists, 74 points in 80 games
Alex Steen — 17 goals, 35 assists, 52 points in 67 games

Chicago
Patrick Kane — 46 goals, 60 assists, 106 points in 82 games
Artemi Panarin — 30 goals, 47 assists, 77 points in 80 games

Line comparison (lines used in Tuesday’s practice)
Line 1
St. Louis: Schwartz-Lehtera-Tarasenko
Chicago: Ladd-Toews-Hossa
Advantage: Chicago

Line 2
St. Louis: Fabbri-Stastny-Brouwer
Chicago: Panarin-Anisimov-Kane
Advantage: Chicago

Line 3
St. Louis: Berglund-Steen-Backes
Chicago: Mashinter-Teravainen-Fleischmann
Advantage: St. Louis

Line 4
St. Louis: Upshall-Brodziak-Reaves
Chicago: Desjardins-Kruger-Shaw
Advantage: Chicago

Defensive pairings
Pairing 1
St. Louis: Bouwmeester-Pietrangelo
Chicago: Keith-Seabrook (Svedberg for the suspended Keith in Game 1)
Advantage: Chicago (after Game 1)

Pairing 2
St. Louis: Edmundson-Shattenkirk
Chicago: van Riemsdyk-Hjalmarsson
Advantage: even

Pairing 3
St. Louis: Gunnarsson-Parayko
Chicago: Gustafsson-Rozsival
Advantage: St. Louis

Goalie
St. Louis: Brian Elliott
Chicago: Corey Crawford
Advantage: Chicago

While the Hawks have the advantage in most matchups, these teams are closer than they look. The X-factor in this series will be the performances of Trevor van Riemsdyk, Erik Gustafsson and Panarin. Look for Chicago coach Joel Quenneville to roll Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson close to 30 minutes a night. The others will fill in at Quenneville’s whim.

At this point, it appears that he trusts van Riemsdyk to be his fourth defenseman. I’m not sure I agree with him, but it doesn’t appear as if he’ll change his mind on that one.

In my mind, Gustafsson, deserves to be in the lineup. My fear is that the Blues will attack him physically, hoping to shake his puck-moving confidence. If they can manage to do that, Gustafsson loses what makes him so valuable.

My other concern for the Hawks is Panarin’s playoff inexperience. He’s been fantastic this season and hasn’t backed down from any physical challenges, but the Blues are going to try to knock the hell out of him. How will he respond? If I had to bet, I think Panarin will overcome, but it’s a question mark. There are a lot of those headed into this series.

Can the Blues beat the Blackhawks? Yes they can. Will they? I don’t think so.

I’m picking the Hawks in six games.

Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Spiegel and Goff Show on 670 The Score and the Blackhawks columnist for CBSChicago.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast with James Neveau of NBCChicago.com that you can listen and subscribe to here. Follow him on Twitter @JayZawaski670.

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