Previewing the Blackhawks’ Potential First Round Playoff Mathups

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis BluesHeading into Tuesday night’s matchup between the Blackhawks and Coyotes at the United Center, the Hawks sit third in the Central Division with 99 points, while the Stars and Blues are tied atop the division with 105. The Blackhawks do have a game in-hand on both Dallas and St. Louis, but that won’t matter unless the Hawks get two points against Arizona. Given how the standings currently look, let’s breakdown who the Hawks may meet in the first round of the playoffs, and who they should prefer to meet.

We’ll start with Dallas.

If the playoffs started today, we would see a St. Louis – Chicago showdown in the first round. With the Blues and Stars tied for the top spot in the Central and each with two games left on their schedules, a lot can still take place, however. Heck, even the Hawks aren’t mathematically eliminated from winning the division. If St. Louis were to end up taking the division title, we would get a Stars – Blackhawks first round series.

This regular season, the Hawks went 1-4 against Dallas, and all of their losses were of the ugly sort. Needless to say, the Stars gave the Blackhawks some problems this year. While some may be inclined to think much of the same would occur in a playoff series between the two teams, that won’t exactly be the case.

Dallas is the league’s best offensive team with two of the game’s best scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They’ve also got the likes of Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza, and even John Klingberg, who developed into one of the NHL’s best offensive d-men this year. They are a deep team at forward and can roll four lines rather effectively.

Defensively, Dallas has some depth as well. The emergence of Klingberg as an elite offensive defenseman has been huge for the Stars, as has the addition of defensive specialist Johnny Oduya. Jason Demers is expected to be out of the lineup for a couple more weeks with a shoulder injury, and when he returns, Dallas has three decent defensive pairings.

The Stars’ biggest knock is their ability, or sometimes lack thereof, to keep pucks out of their own net. While their defense is built with recognizable names, they aren’t exactly the best group when it comes to actually playing defense. Like Klingberg, this is a defensive unit that is stronger in the offensive zone than they are in the defensive zone more often than not. Add in their goaltending, which ranks in the bottom five in total save percentage and allows an average of 2.80 goals per game, and you begin to understand that this is purely an offensive team.

Dallas ranks fourth in the NHL in CorsiFor (CF%) percentage (number of shot attempts a team generates, whether on goal or not, compared to their opponent), which means they’re a team that plays with possession of the puck more frequently than they do not. This is just how they want it given their issues defensively and in net.

In a potential Blackhawks – Stars series, the key for each team would become puck possession. The Stars need the puck so that their offensive weapons can do their thing. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, would need the puck to prevent the Stars’ forwards from doing what they do best: scoring goals. While the Hawks rank in the middle of the pack in CF%, they still own the ability to be one of the league’s best puck possession teams. Given how the Blackhawks seem to dial up their intensity come playoff time, it’s not out of the question that they could be the better possession team in this potential series.

As for St. Louis, they are somewhat the opposite of Dallas in terms of their team strengths.

Unlike the Stars, the Blues pride themselves on defense and goaltending. That is why they rank fifth league-wide in fewest goals against per game, and first in team save percentage. Their defense is led by a top four that is very solid in the defensive zone, unlike Dallas, who have two goalies behind them in Brian Elliott and Jake Allen that both own save percentages in the .920’s. Defense is without question the strength of the Blues.

Aside from the strong defensive capabilities, this team also ranks top ten in CF%. It’s a tough combination to try and go up against. However, despite the strong possession and Corsi numbers, St. Louis is 14th in goals per game. Therein lies their biggest problem.

It seems to be the case every year with the Blues: they have a strong defensive team, but not enough offensive firepower to advance deep into the postseason. You can rank as high as you want in CF%, but if you’re not putting the puck in the net, it will eventually come back to bite you. Granted, the Blues are in the top half of the league in goals per game, but their offensive depth is what could hurt them yet again.

When you look at their individual statistics, Vladimir Tarasenko leads the team with 71 points. Next is Alex Steen with 51, followed by three players in the 40s. Their bottom two lines are not very productive offensively, which usually spells trouble in the playoffs. It is due to this weakness that the Blues have not made it past the second round of the playoffs in any of the previous four seasons, while being eliminated in the first round each of the past three years. Obviously anything could theoretically happen this time around, but the 2015-16 Blues look, on paper, awfully similar to the previous four Blues teams to have made the postseason only to be quickly eliminated.

So looking at the two most likely candidates to face the Blackhawks in the first round, which one should the Hawks prefer?

While I hate “wishing” for a specific opponent (that usually ends poorly), I believe the Blackhawks would be better off getting the Blues in round one. Here’s why:

  1. The Hawks defense can be vulnerable, to say the least. Losing Johnny Oduya was a killer, and the Hawks are still trying to find his replacement on the team’s second d-pairing. Also, Corey Crawford has missed the last 9 games due to injury. Although he is expected back for Game 1 of the first round, who knows how much rust he’ll have to clean off himself. Given those two factors and the fact that Dallas is league’s best offensive team, I’d rather go up against a team like the Blues that isn’t as offensively strong. The Blackhawks’ offense and depth can be good enough to beat a solid defensive team.
  2. There is a certain “familiarity” that the Blackhawks have with the Blues. They’ve recently gone up against each other in the playoffs and know the tendencies that the Blues have on both sides of the puck. Joel Quenneville is no stranger to playing the matchup game against Ken Hitchcock, and he usually wins that battle. Bottom line here is that it would be easier for the Hawks to draw up a gameplan against the Blues than it would be to draw one up against a Stars team that despite playing in the same division, the Hawks are not as familiar with.
  3. Lastly, and feel free to take this one for whatever it may or may not be worth, the Stars have owned the Blackhawks this season. They have a 4-1 record against the Hawks and made Chicago look relatively bad in each of those four Dallas victories. Needless to say, the Stars would head into a series against the Blackhawks with loads of confidence. Again, that might not even be a factor, especially against a Hawks team that could care less about what happened in the regular season, but you never know. The Stars going 4-1 against the Hawks this year has to mean something, even if only a little.

There are pros and cons to playing the Blues and Stars in a seven game series. All I’m doing here is trying to highlight those factors and determine which ones are more important than the others when looking at potential playoff matchups.

With just three games left for the Blackhawks (2 for both the Blues and Stars), the Hawks’ best hope is to win out and have both St. Louis and Dallas lose their last two games. This would vault the Hawks into first in the division and guarantee them home ice advantage for at least the first two rounds. The next best option is to have the Blackhawks win their last three games, while just one of St. Louis or Dallas lose their final two. This would allow the Hawks to finish second in the Central and have home ice in round one. Keep in mind that the Blackhawks play the Blues on Thursday, and then St. Louis finishes their schedule at home against the Capitals. If both St. Louis and Dallas win just one more game, however, or if the Hawks lose one, the Hawks are guaranteed third place.

The push for a better playoff seed begins Tuesday night against Arizona for the Blackhawks. Marian Hossa, Andrew Shaw, and Corey Crawford are all out due to injury, while Duncan Keith serves the third game of his six-game suspension.

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