Blues-Blackhawks preview by CBS St. Louis special contributor Brian Bock

Blues-Blackhawks preview by CBS St. Louis special contributor Brian Bock

It may be the most anticipated series of the first round. When the puck drops in St. Louis on Wednesday night, the Chicago Blackhawks begin their quest to become the first back-to-back champions in the salary cap era.

Standing in their way is a Blues team who has been patiently waiting to avenge their loss to the Blackhawks in 2013-14.

Expectations were high for the Blues heading into that playoff series after their second-best regular season in team history (111 points), but the Blackhawks prevailed after an extremely intense 6 games – including 4 that featured overtime.

The series loss was all the more difficult for the Blues to swallow after squandering a 2-0 series lead, which they undoubtedly felt was largely due to losing captain David Backes after being boarded by Brent Seabrook (who received a 3 game suspension for the incident).

Needless to say, no love is lost between these two teams and we should expect fireworks to fly all series.

Despite late start times upsetting fans in both cities, this series is must-watch television for hockey fans. So let’s give the series its due and take a look at what to expect:

2015-16 Season Recap – St. Louis Blues

What Went Right:

Vladimir Tarasenko lived up to his superstar contract extension, finishing the season with 74 points and hitting the 40 goal plateau for the first time in his young career. The ‘STL’ line that features Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Jori Lehtera has emerged as one of the most dangerous offensive combinations in the league.

Offensive Defensemen 42 defensemen in the NHL this season had 33 points or more. The Blues had 3 of them – Kevin Shattenkirk (44), Alex Pietrangelo (37), and rookie Colton Parayko (33). The ability of these three to move the puck in transition will be crucial in the postseason.

What Went Wrong:

Not very much
– the Blues battled through a few injuries to key players during different stretches of the year and finished the regular season with 107 points, good for 2nd place in the strongest division in the NHL this season. This includes winning an impressive 8 of their last 10 games to guarantee home ice in this first round series.

The only potential issue they’re facing heading into the ‘Second Season’ is having several players potentially playing at less than 100%, including David Backes, Troy Brouwer, Steve Ott, and Jake Allen.

2015-16 Season Recap – Chicago Blackhawks

What Went Right:

Artemi Panarin was everything the Blackhawks hoped he could be when they signed him in the offseason – he formed a dynamic scoring line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane. Kane even claimed his first Art Ross Trophy as a result. We’ll save the topic of “salary cap headaches” as a result of Panarin achieving all of his performance bonuses for another day… just like the Blackhawks.

Corey Crawford had himself a nice ‘critics-quieting’ season before suffering an upper-body injury in mid-March. In 58 starts, Crawford posted a .924 save percentage and 7 shutouts. Though Scott Darling played pretty well in his absence, Crawford will need to be at his best when the puck drops on Wednesday.

What Went Wrong:

It would be irresponsible to not mention the overhang at the season’s start surrounding Patrick Kane and the accusation of rape. The Blackhawks management was certainly in a difficult position, as many NHL fans were skeptical (including this one) that Kane belonged on the ice with the Blackhawks while the police investigation was still ongoing. While the topic deserves more focus in mainstream sports media in general, Kane’s play this season proved he has the incident in his rear view mirror.

So long, old friends. As seems to be the case most years in this salary-cap era, the Stanley Cup Champs were forced to part ways with several key pieces of their team. Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya departed for Dallas, and while the aforementioned Panarin filled much of Sharp’s shoes, Oduya’s reliable presence on the back-end has been a bit more difficult to replicate.

Keys to the Series – St. Louis

St. Louis is going to desperately need their secondary scoring to continue in this series. The Blackhawks are a top-heavy team talent-wise, and if the “middle-six” of Backes – Berglund – Steen and Brouwer – Stastny – Fabbri are able to find their way onto the scoresheet, it will go a long way in unseating the defending champions.

In goal, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen proved to be a solid tandem all season long. Allen seemed to be getting the nod a little more frequently and establishing himself as the #1 before suffering an injury in the latter part of the year.

Elliott has the net for Game 1 and I don’t expect him to give it up. He had a better save percentage than Allen (.930 vs .920) in the regular season, and I think he is a difference-maker in the series.

On the defensive side of the puck, it almost goes without saying that the Blues need to find a way to neutralize the impact of Patrick Kane. The 106 point man appears to have taken his game to a new level in his age 27 season, and took full advantage of a healthy season which saw him appear in all 82 games.

Kane is at his most dangerous when he has the puck on his stick. If the Blues can force his teammates to be the primary puck carriers while Kane is on the ice, they’ll have a good chance of limiting his scoring opportunities.

Keys to the Series – Chicago

While Kane made most of the headlines all season, the heart and soul of this Blackhawks team remains Jonathan Toews. At his best on the biggest stages, Toews has delivered some iconic playoff performances in his career, including a Conn Smythe Trophy in 2010 when he led the Blackhawks to the first of his three Stanley Cup victories with the team.

Expect Toews, and his linemates Marian Hossa and trade deadline ‘re-acquisition’ Andrew Ladd, to log the majority of their ice time against the explosive Vladimir Tarasenko. The real key for Chicago is not only can Toews shut down the opponent’s best player, but can he also contribute offensively? In seasons where the answer to that question has been yes, there’s usually a parade in Chicago in June.

Depth, Depth, Depth! The Blues have 3 effective lines that can score. The Blackhawks have 2 elite lines and lots of useful players. There might as well already be a space reserved in Toronto for Coach Joel Quenneville’s Hall of Fame plaque, but this season’s playoffs could prove to be his toughest test to date.

Finding the right combinations to play in his bottom six – and be effective against St. Louis – will prove critical to the outcome of this series.

Finally, the Hawks need to find a way to steal a game in St. Louis. Yes, this seems obvious given they don’t have home-ice advantage and would need to win at least one game at the Scottrade Center to advance – but, their home/away splits are much more pronounced than the Blues this season.

And don’t forget that arguably Chicago’s most important player in the playoffs – defenseman Duncan Keith – is suspended for Game 1. Keith regularly logs 30+ minutes per night in the playoffs, so it will be a tough test for the Hawks to avoid losing the first game of the series without him.

Series Prediction:

I’ve gone back and forth on this series more than any other in this year’s first round. I see it being a total bloodbath – from the first whistle to the last.

It is extremely difficult to pick against the core of Chicago’s, given their level of playoff experience and their history of making big plays in the biggest moments.

However, this year I think the lack of depth throughout the lineup costs Chicago the chance to repeat as champions. It will feel at the end like Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook, and Hossa never left the ice surface, but I think Backes, Tarasenko, Elliott, Shattenkirk and company are the ones smiling during this year’s handshakes.

It goes 7 games, as any series this close should for the fan’s benefit, but losing Game 1 (due to Keith’s suspension) and the lack of home ice advantage in the deciding Game 7 prove too much for the Blackhawks to overcome. St. Louis in 7.

-Brian Bock, Special Contributor to CBS St. Louis