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

One of the reasons the Blues looked to be so dangerous when they were healthy was the depth of their offensive attack. The emergence of Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz as speedy scoring threats off the wing gave them a dimension they did not have in last spring's first-round exit against the Los Angeles Kings. With Tarasenko still sidelined, Schwartz must continue his strong sophomore play against Chicago. The 14th-overall pick in 2010 had 25 goals in the regular season, five on the power play and three while shorthanded. Especially if the Blues are going to be without regulars up front, Schwartz will shoulder an even greater burden.

Blackhawks: Patrick Sharp

Blackhawks fans have come to expect the clutch from Patrick Sharp, and to be sure he has slowly but surely emerged from the large shadows cast by Kane, Toews and Duncan Keith over the years. But while he led the team with 34 goals during the regular season, including 10 power-play markers, and 78 points, Sharp did struggle after helping Canada win a gold medal in Sochi, scoring just twice in his first 14 games after the Olympics. But he picked up the pace down the stretch with Kane and Toews on the shelf, collecting three goals in his last five games. If it takes Kane or Toews time to get back in a groove, Sharp will be called upon to continue to deliver production in the clutch.

Fatal Flaw

Blues: Injuries to regulars

It's no longer a question of how far the Blues can go this spring but rather which Blues are going to be able to suit up for the first round. The Blues have gone from a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations to one decimated by injuries to top players, including two-thirds of what was arguably the top offensive group in the league, captain Backes and Oshie, along with important role players Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka. The Blues are also without Tarasenko, who has been out for a month with a hand injury. Brenden Morrow, Alex Pietrangelo and Barret Jackman also missed Sunday's finale, although it's believed all but Morrow, Berglund and Tarasenko will be available for Game 1 and Hitchcock said after Sunday's 3-0 loss to Detroit that all the injured are close. Still, in the team's final nine regular-season games, the Blues scored nine goals. It won't matter how spectacular Miller is in goal if the Blues can't find enough scoring, either from their top scorers or depth players, to keep pace with the league's second-ranked offense in Chicago.

Blackhawks: Burnout

The reality of the Blackhawks' situation is that they have played a ton of hockey since the lockout was settled last year and they embarked on their Stanley Cup run last spring. Throw in the compressed Olympic schedule and the fact they had a league-high (tied) 10 players take part in the Sochi tournament and it's fair to wonder if this team can ramp it up now that the second season is upon us. Last season, the Blackhawks were able to ease into the postseason against a weak Minnesota team in the first round. Banged up or not, the Blues will allow for no such luxuries this spring.

Prediction

The injury situation makes handicapping this series difficult. Maybe it's the Stockholm syndrome, but having spent time around the Blues recently, we think they will stop the bleeding and Hitchcock and Miller will somehow find a way to get this team over the hump. Blues in 7

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