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 corsica.hockey.com, 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.
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.
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?
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."