First-round preview: Blues-Hawks

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It wasn't so long ago this would have been considered the marquee matchup of the first round. Actually, not so long ago it wouldn't have seemed possible these two teams would meet until the second round.

Instead, both the Blues and the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks enter the postseason going more than a little sideways, especially St. Louis, which dropped its final six games of the regular season to give way to the Colorado Avalanche atop the Central Division. The Blackhawks have lost two in a row and six of 11, and both teams have suffered injuries to key personnel, although the Blackhawks figure to be healthier when this series begins at Scottrade Center on Thursday. The relative health of these two teams might determine the winner in what figures to be a long, hard-fought series.

Spotlight On

Blues: Ken Hitchcock

Does it matter that the Blues have gone from a team challenging for a Presidents' Trophy to one staggering around in the wilderness at the end of the regular season? At least in theory it shouldn't matter a lick. In theory. No question the team's psyche has been battered along with the physical ailments that have depleted its lineup, with key figures David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund among those missing time with various ailments. But keep in mind that this is still a deep, defensively talented team that features as good a blue-line corps as there is playing in front of a former Vezina Trophy winner in goal in Ryan Miller. They also have one of the best coaches in the business behind the bench, and if there's a man who can help reverse the team's misfortunes, it's Ken Hitchcock.

Blackhawks: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews

For days, the Blackhawks have been saying, don't worry, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will return for Game 1 and will be fine. Both Chicago stars have skated in recent days, so there's no reason not to believe this will be the case. The two franchise forwards are integral to getting through the first round against the Blues. The Blackhawks have tons of depth up front, but if Toews and Kane return to full health and can step back into their familiar offensive roles, the Blackhawks are going to be tough to handle. Worth noting that whenever the Blackhawks faced adversity last spring, whether it was falling behind the Detroit Red Wings in the second round or in the finals against the Boston Bruins, Toews and Kane were the ones who answered the bell. Naturally. They combined this season for 57 goals, 80 assists and 11 game winners and might in fact be fresher for having been away from the game in recent days (Toews) and weeks (Kane).

Hero In Waiting

Blues: Jaden Schwartz

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