1. How will Duncan Keith's suspension impact the series?
In the short term for Game 1, significantly, and it'll continue having an impact especially if the Blackhawks can't manage to steal one of the first two games in St. Louis.
Over the course of the entire series, though, the team should be fine. When you're playing without your best defenseman and arguably most important player, it will obviously hamper you meaningfully as it will for the Hawks. Keith is the kind of player who can log 30 minutes a night in the postseason playing at a high level in both zones influencing possession. After all, he carried the Hawks and a shorthanded defense in a similar fashion to last year's Cup as the eventual Conn Smythe winner.
You'll have to see Chicago forwards very disciplined and tight in their back checking in helping out the defense. More of a platooned effort in better terms. The Hawks will also probably play a safer more controlled game on Wednesday. I don't think you'll see a lot of pinching or aggressiveness by defensemen. A lazy pass here or there by inexperienced guys like Erik Gustafsson or Viktor Svedberg will also be even more of a death sentence than it normally is without Keith. Expect a lot more controlled time by the Blues in Chicago's zone, at least for Game 1.
That being said, with the suspension not going through the length of the series, the Hawks should be more than fine.
They will have their ideal pairings back together with Keith-Seabrook and van Riemsdyk-Hjalmarsson so things should look more settled then. If Keith's suspension had been for the entire first round or both games in St. Louis, that may as well have been the first nail in the coffin for this team. Instead, the metaphorical engine of the Hawks that's going to play extremely heavy minutes receives extra rest as they try to get by without him for only one game. Game 2 in that instance might be close to a must win if the Hawks fall short in Game 1, but that's a different conversation.
Long answer short, minimal impact. - Robert
2. Will Joel Quenneville's matchup games work against the Blues?
At his best, Coach Q's ability to change the flow of games with his blender is unrivaled. His masterclass at the end of the Western Conference Finals against Bruce Boudreau and the Ducks last season was a perfect example of how Quenneville's mix-and-match style can sometimes leave opponents scrambling to find a response.
However, the Hawks' fantastic run against Anaheim last year came after Game 3, in which Quenneville benched key forwards Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen following a Game 2 win. Naturally, Chicago lost the pivotal game without two of its better players. Once they were inserted back into the lineup and Q turned to some different strategies, the series turned on its head.
That brings me to Hawks-Blues because it's clear Q's matchup games will play a factor here. It's already looking like Brandon Mashinter will suit up for Game 1 on the third line next to Teravainen and Tomas Fleischmann. That's a tad worrisome, but on the flip side, it appears the coach is finally going to stick with a top four of Keith-Seabrook and Hjalmarsson-TVR, which is something I've been clamoring for since mid-March.
There's some good and bad here. Mashinter playing over Richard Panik and Dale Weise seems highly questionable and you can't help but worry it'll cost the team a goal or two in a series that looks to be very, very close on paper. The blending on defense gives me optimism given how much better TVR played with Hjalmarsson during the season, even if they're not playing their usual sides.
Q might be making some curious decisions going into Game 1, but just when you think he couldn't twist your mind any more, he might go do something and TOTALLY REDEEM HIMSELF. - Satchel
3. Should we be worried about Corey Crawford?
Yes and no. If we're being honest, how can you not be worried about a goalie who's appeared in just one game in a little under a month, with that game being a glorified scrimmage?
Crawford had been enjoying a Vezina-caliber season up until his mysterious head injury in the middle of March and it sort of threw things off the rails. Head injuries are something to tread extremely carefully on, both in the health of the player and in his return to top form. In his first game back against one of the worst teams in the league in the Jackets, there was a stretch where Crawford allowed four goals on six shots. Albeit, the Hawks were playing without six regulars in a meaningless game, but it's still something worth noting. The Hawks can't afford that kind of performance from Crawford if they're to advance and more. Now he has to adjust to postseason hockey and that's not easy for anyone, especially for a goaltender with limited action down the stretch.
On the flip side, it may only take him a game or so to round into a high level of play. You'll still probably see signs of rust on Wednesday and you may not be particularly pleased with his play overall, but there will be progress.
It's going to be important for Q to have a longer leash and let him get acclimated and comfortable. You're probably not going to see a relief situation with Scott Darling coming in to save the day like last year, so patience is incredibly important here. Crawford routinely raises his level of play in the postseason as he's stolen several playoff series in recent years giving reason for confidence and hope. The Hawks are going to need him to be elite yet again if they're to repeat and maybe even be this year's Conn Smythe winner, so we're slightly on pins and needles.
On a scale of 1-10 of how much we should be worried, I'll say 5, at cautiously optimistic. - Robert
4. What can we learn from the regular season series between these two teams?
The Blackhawks dropped three of their five matchups with the Blues this season, earning a record of 2-0-3 against their Missouri-based rivals. Two of those three losses came in the last month of the season and one of them was just last Thursday when the Hawks blew a 1-0 lead only to lose in overtime. That sort of win certainly gives the Blues a measure of momentum and confidence going into this series.
However, one of the keys aspects of that record against the Blues this season is that each of the Blackhawks' losses in excess of 60 minutes, while both of their wins were in regulation. These two teams matched up incredibly well with each other. Losing in 3-on-3 overtime and a shootout is certainly not favorable, but the Blackhawks were able to play the Blues even or better at standard 5-on-5 all season long. That bodes well for them heading into a playoff series where every minute -- save for penalty minutes -- is played with five skaters on the ice. - Adam
5. How will Artemi Panarin adjust to postseason play?
In the regular season, he was so, so good. Now we just need to see for ourselves whether Panarin can translate that success to the tighter, more intense competition of the NHL postseason. There won't be as many opportunities in open ice and the physicality gets ratcheted up a notch, so it'll be interesting to see what adjustments the 24-year-old makes in his playoff debut.
Optimism seems to be reigning after Panarin finished his season hot. The Associated Press named him as the top player to watch for the postseason and one source told ESPN's Craig Custance not to be concerned about the Hawks' second line of Panarin, Kane and Anisimov.
"You don’t have to worry about that line," one source said. "That line for me is the best line in the NHL. I think they will continue to be the best line."
The one thing that would seem likely to drag down that line would be Panarin taking his time to adjust to playoff hockey. However, when you consider the success that the winger has now had not only during the NHL regular season, but in the KHL and as a member of the Russian national team, there's a lot of evidence to point to that suggests he'll be ready to continue playing well. - Satchel
6. Can the Hawks stop the Blues' strong power play?
The Blues rank among the NHL's best with the man-advantage, finishing the season with the sixth-best power play in the league after converting on 21.5 percent of their opportunities. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, struggled on the penalty kill for large parts of the season, ranking 22nd in the NHL with an 80.3 percent success rate when down a man. On paper, that's a major mismatch with the Blues holding a huge advantage.
Luckily for Chicago, their penalty kill has been the NHL's best for the past few weeks. They killed off 95.3 percent of their penalties in their last eight games of the season, allowing just one goal in that time. And, as I pointed out the other day, the Blackhawks penalty kill struggles were due in large part to the absence of Marcus Kruger. His return is helped spark their recent PK success and they've been one of the league's best PK units with Kruger in the lineup.
If you consider how strong Chicago's shorthanded unit is with Kruger in tow, this becomes a very balanced matchup in the special teams department. Overall, while special teams can sometimes make or break a team's postseason chances, this series will have to be won at 5-on-5. - Adam
7. Are we underestimating the Blues' goaltending?
We often hear that a Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick or even a Crawford might "steal" a series. Sometimes a goaltender can simply get so hot that whatever advantages the opponent has on the ice gets offset by the brilliance in that small space between the pipes.
The Blues' duo of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen usually doesn't get that kind of hype, but the Hawks shouldn't be sleeping on the goaltending they're about to face. Even with Allen just finally recovering from a lower-body injury, St. Louis has benefited from fantastic goalie play all season long.
St. Louis finished the season with the league's highest save percentage (.919) and the fifth-best percentage during 5-on-5 play (.931). A big part of the team's success on the penalty kill has resulted from its goaltending. When shorthanded, the Blues' netminders have a .905 save percentage. Anaheim is the only other team with a shorthanded save percentage above 90 percent.
So as good as Crawford was during the regular season, St. Louis might actually have the advantage in goaltending. Obviously this could swing drastically depending on someone getting hot or going into a slump, but I would anticipate the Blues making it tough for Chicago to finish its chances. - Satchel
8. How can Vladimir Tarasenko be stopped?
See, I'm not sure if he can be stopped. Maybe slowed down, but otherwise, Tarasenko is a complete terror for any team to deal with.
You don't neutralize superstar players, you just hope to limit them. Any 40-goal scorer and 74-point player like Tarasenko isn't likely to just be washed away. He's also become sort of a Hawk killer in a sense, with eight goals and five assists in 15 regular-season games played against them in his career. This year alone, he had five goals and two assists in five games against Chicago, including the game-tying goal and game-winner in Chicago's home finale. Last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Tarasenko was just a second-year player when he scored four goals in an electrifying first-round series performance. The Hawks simply had no answer for him early on and to an extent, still really don't.
That being said, when Chicago has the matchup advantage with the last line change at home, Q can have Keith and Toews on the ice against Tarasenko as much as possible. Don't let him spring free away from your best defensive players and you put yourself in a better position. This is something Q does very well with in the playoffs as Satchel notes, so there's hope. Crawford will also have to be that aforementioned wall and save the Hawks' bacon on the occasions that Tarasenko's bound to find space. He's just too talented to not expect that. It's noted how well and coached the Hawks are with stick positioning in the playoffs so they better put it to good use. While the Blues have a deep forwards corps, Tarasenko is really the one guy to consistently be afraid of. When he went cold in 2014 towards the end of the series, so did St. Louis. If they can somehow slow him or if he goes through another cold streak, Chicago's chances to advance go up exponentially, because there isn't much more creativity or flair in that line-up.
Basically, take advantage of last change at home and make sure there's a focus on Tarasenko every time's he on the ice and you're in a much more advantageous position. - Robert
9. How much will the mental edge play a factor for the Blackhawks?
If there's one clear cut advantage the Blackhawks have over the Blues, it's recent playoff history. Over the past three seasons, the Blackhawks are 11-1 in postseason series. They've won twos in that time and went to seven games in the Western Conference Final in 2014. The Blues, meanwhile, are 1-3 in playoff series in that time, losing in the second round in 2013 and the first round in 2014 and 2015. Their 2014 loss was to the Blackhawks, who won four straight games to win the series after St. Louis took a 2-0 series lead. (You'll surely be reminded of this if Chicago falls behind again this year.)
The Blues playoff struggles are certainly in the back of their mind. The Blackhawks playoff dominance is definitely on the minds of both teams, as well. Laura Astorian, managing editor of St. Louis Game Time, said as much on this week's Ice Cold Podcast. So while it may not be the biggest factor in this series, it certainly will play a role. - Adam
10. How should the Blackhawks management react if they lose this series?
It's always tough to adjust course when things don't go according to plan. General manager Stan Bowman was very aggressive at the trade deadline and it was clear his intentions were to build this team up to win its second straight Stanley Cup. They gave up major pieces to do so, including Marko Dano, Phillip Danault and their 2016 first-round pick. If the Blackhawks fall short, it will certainly be a disappointment.
In reality, though, I'm not sure that an elimination would change the Blackhawks' offseason plans too drastically. The priorities would remain the same -- try to move Bryan Bickell's contract, look for an effective fourth defenseman and try to sign depth forwards to inexpensive contracts. If I was Bowman, trying to get Artemi Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen to sign contract extensions sooner rather than later would be a priority this summer as well.
The Blackhawks' biggest issues wouldn't go change or go away with a Cup win. You could argue that they should consider their deadline moves a waste if they don't fall short, but reacting too harshly to that would be a major mistake. This team wanted another Cup and they took what they though were necessary steps toward getting it. Winning would make the issues hurt a little bit less, but overall Bowman's offseason strategy should remain unchanged even if the Blackhawks can't bring Lord Stanley home again this summer. - Adam