Game Time: 8:30PM CDT
TV/Radio: CSN, NBCSN, SportsNet360, TVA-S, WGN-AM 720
If A Urinal Cake Were A Town: St. Louis GameTime
As far as inevitabilities go, the Hawks and Blues meeting in the first round of the playoffs this year is right up there with death, taxes, and David Haugh writing something profoundly ignorant, stupid, and damaging. And with this series, all of the old war horses once again will be trotted out, from the Hawks “turning it on” and hockey followers everywhere from local to national believing beyond a shadow of a doubt that this time it will be different for the Blues.
Not that the Blues don’t have an impressive amount of foward depth, solid goaltending, and a coaching mandate that at least on paper looks like it should be built for the post season. But there are reasons it hasn’t worked out. As a group, the Blues’ forwards are deep in NHL caliber players, but there isn’t a lot of variance among them. It’s been a strictly north-and-south attack, aside from Vladmir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, and potentially in the future from Robby Fabbri. Tarasenko absolutely destroys the Hawks, and he and Schwartz together two years ago were the Blues only threat in that six game series. To begin things they’ll be separated, with Tarasenko manning the top right wing spot opposite Alex Steen and whatever it is Jori Lehtera provides in the middle. Schwartz will be on Paul Stastny’s left with Troy Brouwer clearing space on the other side. It’s of little surprise that Stastny’s production improved greatly once Schwartz returned from a broken leg, as Schwartz is solid in all three zones. Two-thirds of the third line for the Blues will be returning from injury tonight, as both CAPTAIN David Backes and the aforementioned Fabbri join Patrik Berglund. “Grown Man Named Scottie” Upshall, Kyle Brodziak, and Ryan Reaves provide an unpleasant fourth line experience if only from the stench alone.
If all of that sounds familiar, so will the blue-line, where once again Alex Pietrangelo and Jabe O’Meester will be entrusted on home ice to absorb whatever coach Nihilist Arby’s determines to be the Hawks’ top threat, though as a general rule they don’t tend to flip the ice with those assignments. That will be left to Kevin Shattenkirk, who should get an abundance of offensive zone starts, and even when he doesn’t he has the wheels to skate himself out of trouble from his own end. The Blues offer a slightly new wrinkle with the giant, rambunctious man-baby Colton Parayko, who redefines the adjective “shotgunny” from the third pairing.
In net, another outstanding regular season has earned Brian Elliott first crack at the Blues’ net in the playoffs, boasting a league-best .930 save percentage in 38 starts. Should he revert to his sub-.900 career playoff save percentage, Jay Gallon should be healthy enough to take the crease. After all, Brian Elliott does have a terminal case of “Brian Elliott”.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, it just wouldn’t be the playoffs without Joel Quenneville inexplicably dressing a tomato can well out of his depth. This year’s honor goes to MANSHITTER, who will join Teuvo and Tomas Fleischmann on the third line over the likes of Richard Panik and Dale Weise. Panik has shown to be at least passably capable moonlighting with Toews in Marian Hossa’s absence, and playoff style hockey is seemingly ideal for a face-first winger with wheels like Weise. Nope, MANSHITTER gets the call, turning a line that was supposed to be an advantage, particularly on the road, into a liability. The other three lines are as they are expected to be, with the lone possibility of Andrew Ladd not making the bell due to his wife giving birth here at home today.
On the back end, the first and only real game where Duncan Keith’s absence will be felt tonight, after which his suspension concludes. There are no passable pairings to be found here tonight, with Niklas Hjalmarsson serving as the lone defenseman capable of actually playing against Tarasenko or Schwartz. He’ll more than likely get stuck with Teflon Van Riemsdyk, and the two will be no doubt submerged in an onslaught of shots against. Bottomless Pete and Big Country Bryant Svedberg will account for the second pairing, with Rozsival and Erik Gustafsson likely comprising the third, though there might be a Christian Ehrhoff sighting. Stay tuned. Corey Crawford will get the net tonight, and he’ll need to be sharper than he was to start the post-season last year, if he can even see straight at this point.
There’s a grasping-at-straws, desperate argument that could be made that it’s better for Duncan Keith to miss a road game with the Hawks not having home ice advantage, as they’re only hoping to get a split anyway. That of course pre-supposes that him missing this game wasn’t totally avoidable, but that’s moot now. The fact that the Hawks basically are trotting out 5 third-pairing, and in some cases barely-NHL caliber defenseman against one of the deeper and more physical forward groups in the league should be of utmost concern, depending on what Ken Hitchcock decides to do.
While the matchups are important, they’re not THE most important. Yes, he’ll likely try to get Tarasenko away from Hjalmarsson, and probably have Backes regail Jonathan Toews about what a great person he is for rescuing dogs and fighting all night long, but the main component here is strategy. With only one mobile defenseman who could very well only play 5:00 tonight (Gustafsson), will Baron Harkonnen let his forwards off the leash enough to harass the leaden-footed Hawk defenseman in the corners all night? There really isn’t a wrong answer here, as without Keith the Hawks have no trap busting puck-carrier should Hitchcock go conservative. But he can put this game away early if he sends his unwashed masses below the rings and the Hawk forwards don’t come extra deep to help.
For the Hawks, without Keith and on the road against a real team, they’re basically going to have to pray to keep things close via the power play and Corey Crawford providing an exceptional performance. The former might be an issue, as the Blues had the second best PK in the league at 85.1%.
There is a belief that the Hawks will just “flip the switch”, as if that idiom in and of itself isn’t colossally annoying at this point, and there is only minimal and anecdotal evidence to suggest such a thing happening. This team hasn’t beaten a Western Conference playoff team in over two months, and now they’re just simply expected to be capable of doing it for two months straight. But this time it will be different.
On the other side, the Blues are expected to finally put all of their seemingly solid pieces together and make a deep run, despite the fact they as a team have fewer wins in the playoffs since the lockout than the Oilers, and Hitchcock himself has only won one series in that same timeframe. But this time it will be different.