Blackhawks

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 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.

[SHOP: Gear up for the Stanley Cup playoffs, Blackhawks fans!]

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. 

[MORE: Who has the edge in the Blackhawks-Blues series?]

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."

Getting to know four newly-signed Blackhawks

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AP

Getting to know four newly-signed Blackhawks

The Blackhawks announced Monday that they have officially agreed to terms with forward Dominik Kahun, defensemen Lucas Carlsson and Darren Raddysh and goaltender Kevin Lankinen on entry-level contracts.

Kahun ($925,000 cap hit), Lankinen ($925,000) and Raddysh ($730,000) each signed two-year deals that run through the 2019-20 season while Carlsson's is a three-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 campaign and carries a cap hit of $792,500.

So who are these guys? Let's meet them:

Carlsson

Drafted in the fourth round (No. 110 overall) by the Blackhawks in 2016, Carlsson set a career-high with 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in 44 games this season with Brynäs IF of the Swedish Hockey League. He was tied for fourth among all blue liners with seven goals.

Carlsson, 20, doesn't have major upside, but he's a reliable, well-rounded defenseman and that's what drew the attention of Blackhawks vice president of amateur scouting Mark Kelley.

“When he’s on the ice, he makes things happen," Kelley told Scott Powers of The Athletic last summer. "I think what impressed the Sweden under-20 coach was Lucas’ ability to challenge in all three zones. He’s an active defensively. Offensively, he challenges. He keeps plays alive.”

Kahun

The 22-year-old forward spent the last four seasons with EHC München of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, Germany's top professional hockey league, where he established career highs in assists (29), points (41) and tied a personal best with 12 goals, leading Munchen to their third straight championship in 2018 after recording four goals and 10 assists in 17 playoff contests.

He raised eyebrows at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, where he compiled five points (two goals, three assists) in seven games and won 55.4 percent of his faceoffs (41 of 74), helping Germany capture a silver medal.

“He has made an enormous step this year, has become much more stable and mature," German national team coach Marco Sturm said after the Olympics. "I am sure that he would grab it in the NHL,” Sturm told the Hamburger Morgenpost.

Most recently, Kahun had a goal and two assists in seven games for Germany during the IIHF Men's World Championship. He's 5-foot-11, 176 pounds whose known to be a solid two-way player and can play center but may need some time to adjust to the smaller ice surface and NHL style of speed and physicality.

Lankinen 

Lankinen is 23 years old and coming off a season in which he was in the discussion for the Urpo Ylönen trophy, annually awarded to the top goaltender of the Finnish Elite League, after registering a league-best 1.33 goals against average and .946 save percentage in 15 games with HIFK.

He missed a large portion of the season because of an injury, but it didn't stop him from turning in a strong postseason, guiding his team to a bronze medal after posting a 1.99 GAA and .936 save percentage in 13 playoff games. The year before that, he led the league with seven shutouts in 42 games, backstopping his team to a silver medal.

This is a low-risk, medium-sized reward signing for the Blackhawks, who could use some more young goaltending depth in the pipeline, especially given how this season unfolded with the big club.

Raddysh

The Blackhawks signed Raddysh to a one-year AHL contract last June, and he turned it into an NHL one after a strong season with the Rockford IceHogs.

Raddysh, 22, accumulated 22 points (five goals, 17 assists) in 66 regular-season games with the IceHogs, and has appeared in each of the team's playoff games en route to the Western Conference Final.

Last season Raddysh was named the OHL's top defenseman after scoring 16 goals and 65 assists for 81 points in 62 games for the Erie Otters, where he was teammates with current Blackhawks winger Alex DeBrincat. He's the Otters' all-time leader in assists (143) and points (184) among defensemen.

Raddysh might be nothing more than a depth defenseman, but his development is worth monitoring because the offensive production is there and that's something the Blackhawks lacked this past season from their back end.

Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa: 'I will not play hockey anymore'

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AP

Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa: 'I will not play hockey anymore'

Days after putting his Gold Coast condo on the market, Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa revealed to a Slovakian newspaper that he is moving back to his hometown country and doesn't plan on returning to the NHL.

"I will not play hockey anymore," said Hossa, who missed the entire 2017-18 campaign due to a progressive skin disorder and the side effects of the medications involved to treat it. "I have a valid contract with Chicago for the next three years, but I have only one health and it does not allow me to return."

Because he has three years left on a deal that carries a $5.275 million cap hit, Hossa is not expected to sign his retirement papers until the contract is completed or else it would result in salary cap consequences.

The news is not surprising, but it officially allows the Blackhawks to move on without him in the fold roster-wise and toy around with some options this summer.

The first is stashing his contract on long-term injured reserve, as they did last season when they utilized the in-season preference.

The second, which Hossa wondered could happen, is finding a trade partner that would absorb the remainder of his contract, usually done by lower payroll teams aiming to reach the cap floor.

And it wouldn't be difficult trying to find a buyer, considering Hossa's actual salary is $1 million per year over the next three seasons. Hossa, of course, has a no movement clause but it's likely he would waive it given his status at this point.

The good news for Chicago is, the three-time Stanley Cup winner didn't rule out joining the Blackhawks organization in some capacity after his contract expires in 2020-21, whether it's in a front office role or as a team ambassador.

In 19 NHL seasons, Hossa accumulated 525 goals and 609 assists for 1,134 points in 1,309 regular-season games, and added 149 points (52 goals, 97 assists) in 205 postseason contests. He's one of 45 players in league history to net at least 500 goals in his career.