We all know that the Blues did not exactly end the season on a positive note. One win in the last 6 games would've won them the Central and a more favorable first round match-up with the Minnesota Wild. That didn't happen, the Blues are dealing with the Blackhawks in the first round, and very few (if any) experts are picking them to make it to the second.
What a difference from early season predictions, huh?
Something to be taken into consideration is the fact that the Blues were the walking wounded for the last three and a half games of the season, turning a small slump into an absolute tire fire. They also had to play eight games in 13 days, adding fatigue to injury and inexperience. What we saw to close the season out weren't the Blues.
Hopefully some R&R have revived the team to some semblance of what we're used to. Most of the injured players are back: David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Brenden Morrow, Vladimir Sobotka, and Vladimir Tarasenko will return, as will Alex Pietrangelo and Barret Jackman. Right there, immediately, this makes them a better team. The Blues have had issues with secondary scoring outside the top two lines, and two thirds of the first line and a third of the second are back. Patrik Berglund and his upper body injury will have to return later on.
This makes the forward corps much stronger and much closer to the team that dominated the league for most of the season. Part of the issue that the Blues had the last month of the season was the line shuffling necessitated by the absence of Vladimir Tarasenko. The little spark-plug's tenacity and scoring touch has also been missed. Vladimir Sobotka, while not a prolific scorer (and probably really not a second-liner outside of his face-off skills) has also been missed on the ice - the defensive abilities of the call-ups were questionable. Sobotka's usually is not.
The Blackhawks will be getting Jonathan Toews (injured by a Brooks Orpik hit) and Patrick Kane (fell over Brenden Morrow) back for the first round. The loss of the two players was a blow for the Hawks, but because of their balanced offense, they went 4-2 after Toews went down - and this was with the below-standard play of Brandon Saad (who was benched against the Blues earlier this month). With Saad responding well to the time off, the Blackhawks top three lines are all scoring threats and all dangerous. The Blues' top two lines at the very least will be, but St. Louis needs more out of the bottom six if they want to keep up with the Hawks.
Who will Ken Hitchcock settle on for the sixth defenseman for the series? Ian Cole, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Jordan Leopold all have had streaks of decent play and questionable play. Cole in particular has been a penalty machine at the absolute worst times. Still, he escaped some of the Blues' more embarrassing games even, such as the season finale loss and the loss to Chicago on April 6th. Colaiacovo's last five games have not been as solid as Cole's, and Leopold seems to still be getting his sea legs back after a long absence due to injury.
The top pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester is still one of the best in the sport, but they have not - like the rest of the team - been particularly solid as of late. When you're playing 22 minutes a night on a team that appears to be in a death spiral, I suppose that is prone to happen.
Chicago's defense, anchored by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, again is solid. They're going to give the Blues fits, so St. Louis is going to have to adapt and get through them. Perhaps chip and chase isn't the best plan.
This was supposed to be the Blues' big upgrade, and it's turning out to be a lateral move. I'm not saying that the outcome of the last six games would've been different with Jaroslav Halak in net, but Ryan Miller has gone a bit cold recently. I'll hold out hope that this is just a bad stretch exacerbated by bad team play, but he absolutely has to be better. His GAA is below .870 over the last six games (though is a .915 on the season). He does have a reputation for being a headcase. When he's on, however, he's on - hopefully he'll be on this season. If he is, he can outduel Corey Crawford, whose GAA is .917 and who probably benefits from the Hawks' excellent defense.
Remember: weak glove!
Just kidding - Crawford's glove side isn't strong, but I don't think the meme from last season's playoffs will carry over.
Regardless, his team won the Stanley Cup last season, and Ryan Miller hasn't been in the playoffs for years. Brian Elliott has more experience in the playoffs as of late, and his stats this season have been reliably solid. Will Miller be on a short leash in favor of Elliott? Probably not. He was trotted out repeatedly at the end of the season despite poor play. He's not going to be the backup to start any of these games.
Special Teams and Coaching:
This series, the Blues are going to have to rely on their league-second best penalty kill to stifle the Blackhawks' powerplay, which is much improved from last postseason. The Blues' own penalty kill needs to turn it around and fast.
Coach Joel Quennville is one of the best in the game, and so is Ken Hitchcock, despite the idiosyncrasies that have been driving fans nuts such as inexplicable lines and a love of Vladimir Sobotka that knows no bounds.
I suck at these. I don't want to be a negative nelly, which is my reflexive mode when it comes to the Blues in the playoffs. I also don't want to be super optimistic, because anyone who has watched and paid attention to this team for the past month, well, can they even be?
I do think, with healthy forwards, that the Blues will make a series of this, and it won't be the blowout everyone's expecting. God willing, it'll be the Blues in seven.