In one corner, the defending Stanley Cup Champions. In the other, the higher seed that lost six straight games to end the regular season.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the Chicago Blackhawks (46-21-15) and the St. Louis Blues (55-23-7), who square off in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.
Oh, and did we mention that both of these teams don’t like each other?
Add it all up, and this has the makings of a fantastic series.
“You’re right on both counts,” CBC play-by-play broadcaster Dean Brown said on Ferrall on the Bench. “St. Louis, over the course of the season, has been a better team – marginally better – (but they’ve also been) in a tail spin at the end of the regular season. And their goalie that they got from Buffalo – the Ryan Miller deal, to really cement the goaltending – well, he has not had a good run down the rest of the regular season. So that easy matchup that you thought would be easy to handicap, it’s not easy at all now – for the NHL or anybody else.”
Indeed, thanks to the NHL’s new playoff format, the teams that finished second and third in each division will play each other in the first round. Thanks to the Blues and Blackhawks – not to mention the Sharks and Kings – we’ve got some great first-round series. Unfortunately, we’ve also got legitimate Stanley Cup title contenders bowing out in the first round.
“That’s the ying and the yang of the playoffs this year,” Brown said.
And that ying and yang will be felt much more heavily in the West than the East, which is giving us Tampa Bay versus Montreal and the Rangers versus the Flyers. Those will be entertaining series, but none of those teams expects to seriously contend for the Stanley Cup.
“The Western Conference just has so much more talent and better teams than the East does,” Brown said. “The East is all but two teams. It’s Pittsburgh and Boston. That’s the East.”
Getting back to the West, St. Louis was one of the best teams in the league all season. The Blues finished in the top six in both goals (2.9) and goals against (2.3) and were also in the top eight in both power plays and penalty killing.
And yet, no one knows what to make of this team. The Blues went 0-6 down the stretch, during which they scored just five goals, were shut out three times and allowed 3.7 goals per game.
It also doesn’t help that St. Louis has been a major disappointment each of the last two postseasons. In 2013, the Blues were up 2-0 in their first-round series against the Kings but lost four straight games – all by one goal. And, in 2012, they were swept by the Kings in the semifinals.
To lose in the first round to their arch-rivals, the Blackhawks, would shatter an already-low morale.
“The pressure on these guys is huge,” Brown said. “Because the last two years, they have been one of the best teams in the league to go nowhere – and everybody knows it. That’s the hard part about this. You can just as easily see them getting to the Cup final as you can see them getting knocked out in the first round.
“You can feel it here in the city,” Brown continued. “People are excited about the playoffs starting and, at the same time, very concerned about the playoffs starting – because they know the two solitudes here. This could either start something very special, or end something startlingly badly.”