The St. Louis Blues have been the most consistent team in the NHL this season and own the league’s best record, but they still aren’t the favorites to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
The reigning champion Chicago Blackhawks, who are aiming to become the first back-to-back Stanley Cup winners since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings, remain the cream of the crop out West.
Unlike the Blues, the Blackhawks have been able to score goals in the playoffs against elite goaltenders over the last four years.
For example, both Chicago and St. Louis played against Los Angeles Kings superstar Jonathan Quick — who’s arguably the NHL’s best goaltender — in last year’s playoffs. The results were quite different.
|Vs. Quick In ’13||Blues (Round 1)||Blackhawks (WCF)|
|Goals For 5-on-5||7||13|
|Avg. Goals For||1.66 (four games)||2.6 (five games)|
The Blues have scored 1.94 goals per game in their last two playoff runs (three series, 13 games), compared to their 2.55 goals per game average in regular-season play during that span. One of St. Louis’ weaknesses is a lack of an elite goal scorer, and with talented young winger Vladimir Tarasenko out six weeks with an injury, this issue isn’t going away.
As for the Blackhawks, they have the required scoring depth to complement their stellar defense.
Chicago leads the NHL in goals scored at 3.27 per game, and six of its players have tallied 19-plus goals. As the chart to the right shows, the Blackhawks also are one of the two-best possession teams in the NHL. They move the puck faster than any team and rank fourth with a 52.4 faceoff percentage (St. Louis is 10th).
The Blackhawks also have clutch players capable of scoring in important moments, something the Blues lack. Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa all have impressive postseason resumes and combined to score 39 goals in Chicago’s 23 playoff games in 2013. St. Louis’ top scoring forwards this season — Alexander Steen (57 points), T.J. Oshie (57 points) and David Backes (53 points) — have disappointed in their postseason careers, with four, two and four goals, respectively.
Goaltending is another area where Chicago has an advantage over St. Louis. The acquisition of Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres in a five-player trade earlier in March just slightly improved the Blues’ goaltending. Miller’s career postseason numbers actually are worse than Jaroslav Halak’s, who was traded to Buffalo as part of the deal.
Blackhawks No. 1 goaltender Corey Crawford quieted his critics last season with a remarkable postseason run, and he should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Chicago handed Miller his first loss with St. Louis last week in a 4-0 victory at the United Center, where Crawford shined in a 23-save shutout.
If Miller doesn’t play at an elite level consistently in the playoffs, which he hasn’t done in his career so far, it will be difficult for the Blues to beat the Blackhawks in a seven-game series because they don’t have the offensive firepower to win high-scoring games against top-tier defensive teams such as Chicago.
Here’s how Crawford and Miller compare in the postseason.
|Playoffs||W/L||GAA||SV%||Series W/L||Series Streak|
Despite their weaknesses, the Blues still have a solid chance to win the Stanley Cup this season. They have a balanced roster with quality goaltending and a head coach in Ken Hitchcock with Cup-winning experience.
But until St. Louis proves it can win in the playoffs against elite opponents and overcome the scoring problems that have plagued the team in recent postseason series, Chicago will remain the clear favorite to emerge from what should be an intense and exciting Western Conference playoffs.
Photo via Twitter.com/@StLouisBlues