The Chicago Blackhawks are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They clinched that spot last week, leaving the other teams to sort out the order in which they’ll finish to determine the first-round matchups.
In the case of the Blackhawks, they are down to three possibilities for the opening round of the playoffs. As the top team in the conference, they face the No. 2 wild card team in the first round. With just a few days left in the season, the St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, and Calgary Flames are jockeying for that spot.
All three teams are locks for the playoffs, but the order of the teams needs to be determined. At the time of writing, the Blues have 93 points in 78 games, the Flames 92 points in 79 games, and the Predators 91 points in 79 games. Whichever team finishes last gets the Blackhawks.
St. Louis has a bit of a buffer room with a couple points in hand and an extra game on the schedule, but it’s still possible we get a Blackhawks-Blues rematch in the first round this year.
It’s also quite possible Chicago gets the Flames or Predators, and there’s a very slim chance the Sharks could fall into that spot with 95 points in 79 games. San Jose has gone 2-8-0 over its past 10, which has opened up the possibility, but it’s still unlikely Nashville catches up from four points behind in three games.
So we’re going to focus on the three teams with the best chances of meeting the Blackhawks in the first round, and which one might be the most favorable matchup for them.
Regular season series: Blackhawks, 3-2
Why they should want the Blues
The first reason is vengeance, duh. When your rival knocks you out of the playoffs after years on the throne, and you’re back in the top spot again, of course you want to make sure they know who’s boss. A series win over St. Louis would be extremely satisfying, and that alone makes facing them an acceptable outcome.
This also isn’t a very deep team. Nobody wants to mess with Vladimir Tarasenko, and the Blues’ defensive top-three of Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo, and Colton Parayko is pretty fierce. But their bottom six doesn’t score much, and trading Kevin Shattenkirk sapped their depth on the back end.
And while they are 12-1-2 over their past 15 games, a bunch of those wins came against bad teams and their 1.061 PDO over that span is the highest in the league. They still have a Corsi below 50 percent despite all those wins, and can largely thank a red-hot Jake Allen for turning the ship around. This team feels highly beatable.
Why they shouldn’t want the Blues
Winning 12 of your past 15 is nothing to scoff at, and it’s clear they’ve found some rhythm under head coach Mike Yeo. This is a team that’s given the Blackhawks trouble in the past, and even if it’s not as deep as a year ago, you know someone like Tarasenko is going to be a handful.
And then there’s Allen, who is playing like he could steal a series right now. The goaltender hasn’t been consistent, so his seasonal save percentage is at .916, but he’s been on fire lately with a .945 save percentage in 22 appearances since the start of February.
If he’s still playing like that in a couple weeks, beating the Blues won’t be easy regardless of whether the Blackhawks have an advantage on the third line.
Regular season series: Blackhawks, 3-2
Why they should want the Predators
Winning in the playoffs is all about your superstars to an extent, and the Predators’ best forwards don’t stack up against the Blackhawks’ best. As good as Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, and James Neal are, Nashville doesn’t have a line with the firepower of the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane-Artemi Panarin connection.
Pekka Rinne also hasn’t returned to his peak form with a regular season save percentage of .917. He’s better than a year ago, but still hasn’t gotten back to his Vezina-finalist level of the past.
The Blackhawks beat the Predators in the first round of the 2015 postseason en route to a Stanley Cup, and presumably feel they could do it again.
Why they shouldn’t want the Predators
The Predators are a good, deep team without any obvious flaws. They’re not exceptional in any area, which could get them into trouble against the Blackhawks’ stars, but they’re also not easily exposed in any part of the game.
They’re 10th in goal scoring, 15th in goal prevention, 15th in power play rate, 17th in penalty kill rate, sixth in 5-on-5 Corsi, ninth in 5-on-5 goal differential, 12th in save percentage, and 13th in shooting percentage. They’re roughly average-to-good in just about every part of the game, and that’s not easy to deal with in a seven-game series.
The defense in particular, with P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis, wouldn’t make things easy.
Regular season series: Blackhawks, 2-0-1
Why they should want the Flames
The Flames haven’t even seen the Blackhawks in their current form. These teams met three teams early in the regular season, with the final matchup coming on Nov. 18 in Calgary. Since then, Chicago has become a better, deeper team, so it probably wouldn’t mind testing its mettle in this matchup.
As good as Johnny Gaudreau is, the Hawks have Kane. As good as Sean Monahan is, the Hawks have Toews. As good as Dougie Hamilton is, the Hawks have Keith. Not that you can be dismissive of any NHL team that’s good enough to make the playoffs, but I doubt the Blackhawks look at these matchups and don’t feel confident in a seven-game series with all their experience.
Why they shouldn’t want the Flames
The Flames have been, well, hot lately. Even with losses in four of their past seven games, they have a 15-5-0 record since sitting at 29-26-4 in mid-February. That run, which includes a 10-game winning streak, has boosted them into a playoff spot.
A big part of that stretch has been goalie Brian Elliott, whose stellar play with the Blues in the first round last year helped knock the Blackhawks out. Elliott has a 15-3-1 record and .931 save percentage in his last 19 appearances, so he’s in top form right now with the playoffs around the corner.
Could Elliott do the deed and knock the Blackhawks out of the playoffs for the second straight year? He’d need a lot of help from Gaudreau, Monahan, and company, but it doesn’t feel impossible.
All in all, there’s no ideal matchup for the Blackhawks here. The Blues might be the weakest team on paper, but they have Allen playing great in goal over the past few weeks. It’s a similar story with the Flames and Elliott, while the Predators would present their own challenges.
For me, a rematch with a highly vulnerable St. Louis team in the first round would be the best way to go, but the Blackhawks seem fully capable of knocking out whoever they go up against (until the Stanley Cup Final, really, which is where the big dogs come out).
Who would you prefer to see in the first round?