Blackhawks

Who has the edge in the Blackhawks-Blues series?

Who has the edge in the Blackhawks-Blues series?

Well, here we are again: the Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues, returning to their rivalry on the playoff stage.

There are no secrets between these two: you know what you get with each team. So how does each part of each team stack up? Glad you asked. As we’ve done in the past, here are our edges in the first-round playoff matchup between the Blackhawks and Blues.

FORWARDS

Each team has its steady captain (Jonathan Toews and David Backes). Each team has its explosive forwards (Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko). The Blackhawks’ second line has been a consistent source of offense throughout the season. Kane finished with a career-high 46 goals and Artemi Panarin had 30, the most for a Blackhawks rookie since Eric Daze (1995-96). The top line has had its moments — Toews finished with 28 goals — but the third and fourth lines haven’t brought offense as they have in the past.

For the Blues, Tarasenko led the Blues with 40 goals. Backes, who is expected to be back from a lower-body injury, is next with 21. After that, the Blues have six players with 10 or more goals this season.

The big question is: will the Blackhawks get the more balanced scoring in the postseason that was so hit and miss in the regular season? Playoff history says they will. This is a close one to call, but...

EDGE: Blackhawks.

[MORE: Blackhawks' health returning at the perfect time]

DEFENSE

The Blackhawks know what they’ve got in their top three defensemen (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson). Finding consistency from 4-6 hasn’t been as easy, and the Blackhawks’ overall defense hasn’t been as strong this season as in the past. Also, the Blackhawks will be without Keith for one more game. The Blues have jumbled up their defensive pairs plenty this season, but that’s been because of injuries, not lack of good play. Despite those injuries, the Blues’ defense has been consistent and strong this season.

EDGE: Blues.

POWER PLAY

We’re not used to saying this entering the playoffs but: the Blackhawks’ power play is good. We mean ranked-second-in-the-league good (22.6 percent). Kane and Panarin have been great on it this season but as Kane said, when the Blackhawks are moving on the power play, it’s worked well. The Blues, meanwhile, aren’t too shabby on this either. They’re sixth in the league, converting 21.5 percent of the time. Both will be threats to penalty kills.

EDGE: Even.

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

PENALTY KILL

The Blackhawks’ usual bread and butter was not nearly as strong and consistent this season as it’s been previously. Yes, it’s been much better down the stretch (29 of 31 in the last 11 games) and if that continues the Blackhawks will be in good shape. The Blues’ kill, however, has been great throughout this season, ranked third in the league (85.1 percent). As much as the Blackhawks’ improvement lately is a good sign, the confidence for the Blues in this category has been there all season.

EDGE: Blues.

GOALTENDING

Corey Crawford is back after missing nearly a month with an upper-body injury. He was hit and miss in the regular-season finale, where getting the timing back was the toughest part. But said he feels great and is ready for the postseason. Brian Elliott will be the Blues’ starter for Game 1. Elliott was great down the stretch and when the Blues recorded four consecutive shutouts in late March, he was in goal for three of them. Will this be the postseason Elliott proves himself? Perhaps. But to this point, the other guy already has.

EDGE: Blackhawks 

Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers

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AP

Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers

The Blackhawks have said all along that they don't plan on carrying three goaltenders, but wanted to do so during the three games in four days stretch just in case, with Corey Crawford coming back from a 10-month layoff because of a concussion.

After being encouraged by how Crawford has responded to his return, the Blackhawks placed goaltender Anton Forsberg on waivers Monday morning. Teams have 24 hours to put in a claim for the 25-year-old goaltender and would have to keep him on their NHL roster for 10 games and/or 30 days before he's eligible to go through the waiver process again.

His chances of getting claimed by any of the other 30 teams essentially depends on which teams believe Forsberg would be an immediate upgrade over their current backup — or starter, for that matter — or whether there's an injury to one of the team's two goaltenders that requires a placeholder, like we saw the Carolina Hurricanes do by claiming Curtis McElhinney from the Toronto Maple Leafs after Scott Darling's injury in the preseason.

If Forsberg goes unclaimed, the Blackhawks can assign him to the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs. With Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen sharing the goaltending duties in Rockford, it's possible Lankinen gets sent to the Indy Fuel in the East Coast Hockey League to get consistent starts under his belt.

A third option, one that isn't very common but we've seen in the past as recently as last October with Maple Leafs goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo, is that Forsberg can be loaned to any AHL team while still being a part of the Blackhawks organization. This would allow the Blackhawks to keep Delia and Lankinen in Rockford while Forsberg gets his starts in the AHL, too.

Or, the Blackhawks could simply trade Forsberg to another NHL team that could stash him in the AHL, as long as he clears waivers. They did it last season with Chris DiDomenico, who cleared waivers as a member of the Ottawa Senators but was then traded to Chicago for Ville Pokka days later. Had DiDomenico been claimed by the Blackhawks, he would have had to stay on the NHL roster as noted above.

Forsberg was 10-16-4 with a 2.97 goals against average and .908 save percentage in 35 appearances last season but has not appeared in a game yet this year. He was acquired as part of the Brandon Saad package for Artemi Panarin in June 2017.

Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen

The Blackhawks were able to get away with their defensive lapses in the past solely because of Corey Crawford. When he went down with a concussion last December, those issues were magnified because he wasn't there to mask the flaws.

But it's reached the point where they can't rely on their goaltender to bail them out on a nightly basis, which is becoming another trend. Cam Ward allowed six goals to Tampa Bay on Sunday night, but made 49 saves — including 30 in the second period alone. He did everything he could to keep his team withing some sort of reaching distance and without his timely stops, the scoreboard could've looked much worse for the Blackhawks.

Something's got to change. 

When the Blackhawks talk about tightening things up defensively, they're not just putting it all on the defensemen. All five guys on the ice need to do their part and they're not doing it right now.

"I think we're trying to do too much and running around trying to do each other's job," Jonathan Toews said. "Sometimes we just need to simply and finish our checks and support each other."

No team has given up more even-strength high-danger chances through eight games than the Blackhawks at 110. That's 15.77 per 60 minutes. For reference, the New York Islanders finished worst in the league in that category last season and their number was at 12.96.

It didn't help that the Blackhawks spent nearly the entire second period in their own end on Sunday.

"We just couldn’t get it out of our zone, couldn’t get our stick on it, didn’t see pressure, didn’t feel pressure when we had it, were stripped," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Hence, we didn’t advance it. Kept looking like we were going up the ice and there were going to be some odd-man situations and then we’re the ones who were facing it."

That's one way to eliminate those high quality scoring chances, is getting the puck out of their own zone effectively or else it opens the door for Grade-A opportunities because of self-inflicted wounds. And it usually happens at the end of shifts when guys are tired, which often leads to goals.

"We have to learn how to play without the puck better and learn how to keep it," Quenneville said. "Whether it was our execution going up the ice, first pass poor and then we couldn’t change. A lot of things that happened yesterday were there tonight."

The Blackhawks weren't using three games in four nights as an excuse because Tampa Bay was in the same situation. It was an even playing field in that respect.

It's all about execution from everyone involved, forwards and defensemen. And the Blackhawks feel they're correctable issues.

"Of course," Toews said. "We've had some good periods this season so far. The first three, four, five games, everyone was excited and you guys are all talking to us much differently than you are right now. It's just getting back to playing that smart defensive game and playing with effort and letting our offense do the work. We know what's got to improve. It's right there in front of us."