Stanley Cup playoff preview: Blues-Blackhawks

Stanley Cup playoff preview: Blues-Blackhawks

The Blackhawks and Blues will clash in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second time in three years, and the series promises to entertain as soon as the puck drops for Game 1 on Wednesday.

But before that, let's break down what each team needs to do to win and what each team's downfall could be.

Why the Blackhawks will win the series: The second line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane has been the most dangerous line — and most entertaining — in the NHL this season, and has carried the Blackhawks offensively. According to, they've been on the ice together for 957:05 minutes this year, which ranks No. 1 in the league by almost 120 minutes.

When the three of them are on the ice together at even strength, they control 53.4 percent of the shot attempts. They've also combined for more than 40 percent of the team's goals. Not many teams have been able to slow them down, and if they do, it's not for long. If that unit dries up a bit, it could present major problems for the Blackhawks, who will have to seek scoring from elsewhere.

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In addition to that, not to put too much pressure on Corey Crawford, who's played just one game in the last month, but the Blackhawks will need him more than ever this spring. He's definitely capable of stealing a round if needed, and if he can outplay the goaltender on the other end — Brian Elliott will start Game 1 — it may be enough for the Blackhawks to move on to the second round.

Why the Blackhawks will lose the series: The Blackhawks won't survive the first round if their lack of defensive depth is exposed by the Blues' forward group, which comes at you like waves.

There's a significant drop-off after Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson on defense. Trevor van Riemsdyk has shown that he can handle big, important minutes, but he's no Johnny Oduya. Erik Gustafsson has found himself in and out of the lineup, along with Christian Ehrhoff. Viktor Svedberg has never played a postseason game. Michal Rozsival can still log meaningful minutes on the bottom pairing, but a speedy team like the Blues could be an issue.

The Blackhawks missing Keith in Game 1 due to a suspension surely doesn't help a blue line that likes to ride their top-four horses in the postseason, as was the case last year. They won a Stanley Cup despite all that, but that tactic may not fly this time around, considering all the mileage they've all accumulated over the last three years. 

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One way or the other, there's a chance the Blackhawks' top-four defensemen will either wear down (eventually) or the matchups will be exploited on the third pairing enough to derail the defending champions.

Why the Blues will win the series: The Blues have all the tools to overthrow the Blackhawks this postseason: They're well-coached, well-structured, deep, resilient, and have received tremendous goaltending from both of their netminders all year long. They pose a serious threat to the Blackhawks with their combination of size and speed — more-so than previous years — and their ability to roll out four solid lines and all six defensemen.

Since the trade deadline on Feb. 29, the Blues are the third-best puck possession team in the NHL, controlling 54.4 percent of the even-strength shot attempts. The Blackhawks are floating in the middle of the pack at 49.9 percent, a number that is significantly lower than last year's regular season percentage of 53.6 that ranked No. 2 overall.

The Blues also finished the 2015-16 campaign with the sixth-best power play percentage (21.5), and could take advantage of the Blackhawks' penalty kill that finished No. 22 at 80.3 percent. Granted, they killed off 19 straight penalties after Marcus Kruger returned, but it's still an area the Blues can exploit.

Why the Blues will lose the series: The Blues lose this series if they can't overcome the mental hurdle of beating a Blackhawks team that has had their way with them in the past. Simple as that. As noted above, the Blues' roster is as good as it's ever been. Can they finally cash in on a lengthy postseason run?

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Final word: This series has the feeling of that 2011 Blackhawks-Canucks first-round matchup, where Vancouver is catching Chicago — which had their number at the time — at the right place, right time: The Blackhawks are battling fatigue coming off a grueling Stanley Cup grind last year, which forced another pretty significant roster makeover, and are relying pretty heavily on goaltending to bail them out. This is the perfect situation for the Blues to capitalize, but it obviously won't be easy.

In 2013, the Blackhawks endured a lengthy postseason after winning a Stanley Cup, and followed that up by overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the first round against these same Blues by winning four straight. 

This season, the Blues went 3-2-0 against the Blackhawks, but needed 3-on-3 overtime or a shootout to pick up those three wins. Obviously, those scenarios don't exist in the playoffs.

The fact the Blues have home-ice advantage puts more pressure on them to secure Games 1 and 2 — the first of which the Blackhawks will be without blue-line anchor Keith — and take a 2-0 lead into Chicago like last time. Only this year, they have the opportunity to rewrite the story. A split would test the Blues' mental toughness and resiliency, but perhaps that won't be an issue this time around.

Something about the make-up of this Blues team feels different than years past. They're resilient on and off the ice, and it's showed as they've been decimated with injuries to quality players all season long. Perhaps their past playoff failures have turned attention away from them until they actually prove they can win when it matters. Could this be the year? They'll need to get past the reigning Stanley Cup champions in the first round to do it, and as coach Ken Hitchcock said: "Might as well start at the top."

Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'

Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'

It was a rare sight to see the Blackhawks in a shootout on Wednesday night.

It was just the second time this season — and first time at the United Center — that the Blackhawks made it past 3-on-3 overtime. 

The last came on Dec. 2, 2017, a 3-2 shootout loss to the Stars in Dallas. On Wednesday night, the Blackhawks were on the other end, beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in a seven-round shootout. Nick Schmaltz netted the game-winner.

"We'll take it," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought we had a decent game tonight. Overtime not so good, I liked the shootout victory, Fors made some big saves for us particularly as the game got deeper. Our third was OK, I thought our first two were way better, and overtime we gave up some high quality, some bells were rings for a bit there. But it was nice to see the shootout win."

Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist, recording another multi-point game, his 16th of the season.

"I mean we need every point we can get at this point," Kane said. "There's still belief in this locker room. Obviously we need to go on quite a run and have a big record here down the stretch. But take it a game at a time and nice to get two points."

Anton Forsberg was a big reason the Blackhawks even recorded those two points. The 25-year-old netminder stopped 34 of 36 shots and made a handful of big saves down the stretch.

"It was really nice to get a win for sure," Forsberg said. "I would love to have a lot more wins, but right now just gotta look forward and get as many wins as possible."

Added Quenneville: "I think it was good for him to win a game the way he did. Lot of shots were on the line, as we progressed, got deeper, hitting the point first was big for him and for us and then finding a way to get the extra one was a good win."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?