Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Blues Healthy but Will it Be Enough to Dethrone Chicago?



For the first time all season the St. Louis Blues will be a fully loaded, accessorized hockey team. All the guns and whistles a coach could ever want will be on display as David Backes and Troy Brouwer returned to practice on Monday, and on Wednesday when the Blues open their playoff series with Chicago, St. Louis will hope to turn that good health into good fortune against the defending Stanley Cup champs.

All that good news was enough to leave coach Ken Hitchcock giddy. Well, for at least 20 seconds until he cut his press conference short by walking away from a crowd of confused reporters.

I guess the important quote to take away from this is when Hitchcock says "We're ready to go."

Ah, forget about Hitchcock, he's clearly preoccupied. David Backes summed it up more eloquently, so we'll run his quote:

"This is the first day since the middle of the summer that we've had every body available to us as a team, and that's impeccable timing because this is when you want all of your weapons on hand, and we have that," Backes said. "We'll have plenty of depth and ability to go and do whatever we need to with all the people available for the first time. Great for the guys in here sticking together to get where we've gotten. Now it's a coaching decision on who gets to wear the jersey for the game and give us success."

Words are all good, but this St. Louis Blues team will be judged on their actions. The Blues have been one of the best regular season teams in the NHL over the last five seasons, but that hasn't stopped them from losing four straight playoff series (and breaking the broken hearts of their faithful fans). So, is their anything different about this version of the Blues that points to success in the playoffs?

Maybe.

The Blues have certainly been better down the stretch. Since March, the teams have been headed in different directions. The Blues were 7th in the NHL in points, going 13-4 in 17 games (and at times playing nearly perfect defensive hockey, the kind that tends to fly well in the post-season), while Chicago won only eight of its 18 games, good for 17th in points accrued in the NHL from March until the final day of the season.

Also working in favor of the Blues is the fact that Vladimir Tarasenko has matched up well against the Hawks this season, scoring five goals and seven points against them. Having home ice should allow him to get more favorable matchups and the Russian, who has ten playoff goals in his last 12 playoff games, could catch fire.

Obviously Chicago, which has won three Stanley Cups in the last six years and has taken eight of its last 11 playoff series with the Blues, has experience on its side. But what has been going wrong with the Hawks down the stretch? It's hard to say, but the banged-up team is almost back to full health as well. Besides missing Duncan Keith for game 1 due to suspension, both teams will start this series with a relatively cleen injury sheet.

Along with Sharks-Ducks, this Blues-Blackhawks matchup is one of the most enticing of all the eight first-round matchups. Two teams primed to make a run for the Cup will tangle, and somebody is going home with a first-round loss (and a broken heart). Can't ask for much more than that in April.