Blackhawks News

Chicago Blackhawks: Analyzing First-Round Opponents

By Colin Likas
Mar 12, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; St. Louis Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson (6) tries to redirect the puck past Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Blues defeated the Stars 5-4 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 12, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; St. Louis Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson (6) tries to redirect the puck past Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Blues defeated the Stars 5-4 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /
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Mar 12, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (91) and Dallas Stars right wing Valeri Nichushkin (43) chase the puck during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Blues defeated the Stars 5-4 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

Offense

Dallas: Blackhawks fans are well aware of the Stars’ offensive potency, as Chicago allowed four goals twice, five goals once and six goals once in game against Dallas this season. The Stars lead the league in goals per game at 3.24, and they have an offensively balanced lineup. It all starts with Jamie Benn (88 points) and Tyler Seguin (73), though Seguin has been out for a bit with a partially torn Achilles tendon. He says he’ll be ready for the postseason, but that can be a dangerous injury to return from early. John Klingberg is offensively impressive on the blue line, and guys like Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky are plenty capable. The Stars have 18 players with double-digit points, including eight with 30 or more.

St. Louis: Creativity here starts and ends with Vladimir Tarasenko, the crafty Russian who boasts 73 points this season. Alexander Steen is another guy you have to keep an eye on, as he carries 52 points. Some of the Blues’ other most important offensive pieces have missed time due to injury, including Paul Stastny (48 points in 63 games), Kevin Shattenkirk (44 points in 71 games) and Jaden Schwartz (22 points in 32 games). Things get a little more gritty and a little less scoring capable toward the bottom of their forward unit, but there are capable producers throughout this lineup, too. The Blues average about 2.75 goals per game after starting the season really slow in that regard.

Edge — Dallas: There’s just more to fear here, and with a faster group of forwards and defensemen than the Blues can boast, it make the Stars’ offense tough to consistently stop. Any group Dallas throws on the ice is capable of scoring.

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Defense

Dallas: Klingberg isn’t just an offensive dynamo. He’s also a really good defensive defenseman and probably a future Norris Trophy winner. Johnny Oduya was a useful pickup in free agency, as he’s helped stabilize this unit to some extent and provide leadership to youngsters. Alex Goligoski, Jordie Benn and Jason Demers are guys who exist and probably do more offensively than they do defensively, while Kris Russell is essentially useless and is going to go down as an awful trade deadline acquisition when fellow defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka (who was involved in the trade) busts out in Calgary. The Stars allow a ton of goals, with their 228 a runaway leader for most allowed by a playoff/playoff contending team. But that may have more to do with something else, which we’ll get to later.

St. Louis: There are some good pieces here in Alex Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk. Jay Bouwmeester is plenty capable as well, though he’s certainly not going to win a fastest skater contest unless it’s against Michal Rozsival. Colton Parayko has been a revelation on the offensive side, but is still a young guy very prone to getting out of position and being beaten by quick, crafty forwards, which the Blackhawks have a few of. Carl Gunnarsson, Joel Edmundson and Robert Bortuzzo (the latter of whom probably won’t see much playoff time) are guys who can give you minutes but more or less serve as decent pylons. Regardless, there’s no denying this defense has helped St. Louis to a tie for the fourth-fewest goals allowed in the league. They may not all be spectacular, but they get the job done.

Edge — Push: Both groups are certainly beatable and have guys who can chip in on the offensive end. Dallas offers more defensive pressure on its opponents while St. Louis is more content to try and shut teams down in the neutral zone or bash them off the puck in the defensive end. Dallas is probably better at the top of the blue line but worse at the bottom than St. Louis.

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Goaltending

Dallas: Yeah, this is not a good area for this team. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi might wind up being the reason the Stars don’t make a lengthy postseason run. When the best goals-allowed average mark between your two starters is 2.68, something has gone horribly wrong. That mark belongs to Niemi, by the way, who has started in three more games than Lehtonen and his 2.76 average. They both have similar save percentages (Niemi .905, Lehtonen .906), and the Blackhawks have made both of them look like gods this regular season. Good news is they aren’t, and the Blackhawks would theoretically have more success against them in the postseason.

St. Louis: On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Blues’ goaltending was carrying the team while the offensive sputtered. But the tandem of Jake Allen and Brian Elliott just can’t stay healthy, with Allen recently being sidelined due to injury. Elliott has posted some incredible numbers this season as “the backup,” carrying a .932 save percentage and 2.00 goals-allowed average in 37 starts. Allen has been no slouch either at .920/2.35 in 44 starts. Elliott looked strong against the Blackhawks on Thursday, but he has a history of falling apart at big times and under heavy pressure. With Allen out right now, that leaves the Blues in a dicey situation should Elliott falter.

Edge — St. Louis: Even with Allen’s playoff status in doubt, Elliott is a better option than the Lehtonen/Niemi duo. The Blackhawks should feel comfortable against all four of these guys despite some past struggles, but the Blues are definitely a stronger team in this department than the Stars.

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Special teams

Dallas: As should be expected, the Stars have an effective powerplay, converting at a 22.1 percent clip. That’s good for fifth in the league, two spots behind the Blackhawks’ mercurial PP unit. But that iffy defense and porous goaltending has turned some man-advantages into nightmares for the Stars, who’ve allowed 15 (!) shorthanded goals. The Coyotes (14) and Canadiens (11) are the only other teams at double digits in that category. But, that offense is still very potent, so it isn’t surprising the Stars also boast 10 shorthanded goals scored, tied with Chicago and Winnipeg for third-most in the league. The penalty kill surprisingly isn’t a troublesome area for the Stars, who rank 10th in the league with an 82.4 percent success rate. Overall, pretty solid on both sides.

St. Louis: The Blues are right there with the Stars in special teams success. St. Louis is just a spot behind Dallas in powerplay success at 21.8 percent. The Blues don’t take too many chances while shorthanded (they don’t necessarily have the personnel to do so), as evidenced by their four shorthanded goals scored. They’re also pretty good at not lulling themselves to sleep on the powerplay, with just five shorthanded goals allowed. The Blues take a lot of penalties, which isn’t surprising for a David Backes-led team, but they certainly know how to atone for those errors. St. Louis ranks third in the league in PK percentage at 85.0, behind just the New York Islanders and Anaheim.

Edge — Push: You’d think the Stars would be far more likely to convert if you give them a powerplay, but the Blues are just as potent with the extra man. And both teams are pretty good when shorthanded, too. Playing these squads at 5-on-5 would probably be preferable.

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Coaching

Dallas: Lindy Ruff is the hotheaded leader of the Stars, and he knows only how to make his teams play supersonic speed. That’s worked out just fine for Dallas, which could be just the third team in Ruff’s 18-year coaching career to win a division title. Ruff’s only legitimate postseason success came way back in 1999 when Buffalo qualified for the Stanley Cup Final. Still, while Ruff can turn a Joel Quenneville-like shade of red, and while he doesn’t have crazy success postseason resume, he’s a pretty crafty guy who has no problem getting the most out of his players.

St. Louis: Oh, Ken Hitchcock. This man has been the butt of many jokes in Chicago, but did you know he actually has a Stanley Cup? And it came with Dallas, all the way back in 1999 … wait a minute. That’s right, folks, Ruff and Hitchcock faced off as coaches in a Stanley Cup Final. How’s that for a history lesson. Hitchcock’s only other big-time playoff success was leading the Stars back to the Cup Final the following season. Since he’s gotten to St. Louis, the coach has presided over strong regular-season teams and postseason flops. If another early exit hits the Blues this season, Hitchcock could shoulder the blame. The man has a hard time adjusting his strategies when he needs to, and so he faces a lot of flak for his team’s failures.

Edge — Dallas: Yes, Hitchcock has the Cup, but that was a really good Dallas team he won with. He’s also been presented with some strong St. Louis teams, and he’s done nothing to push them forward. Hitchcock has been the regular-season god and postseason goat. Ruff doesn’t get this edge by much, but you feel like he just has a better handle over his team in crunch time, even if past results say otherwise.

Playoff experience/mentality

Dallas: Well, Sharp and Oduya certainly have some Stanley Cups. Seguin played for one with Boston and was then booted from the city for not being hitsy enough. Spezza has competed for a Cup with Ottawa. Niemi won a Cup with the Blackhawks but may not even be the Stars’ starter these playoffs. So there’s not a ton of winning experience here. Still, there’s enough to make a verifiable difference in the locker room. As far as mentality goes, you feel like the Stars know they can play with anyone offensively (that’s accurate). The question then becomes if they fall behind in games and have trouble catching up, or if their defense/goaltending implodes and their offense can’t keep up. How will they respond? Ruff will probably do a better job of controlling his players in such a situation than Hitchcock would.

St. Louis: Troy Brouwer won a Cup in Chicago. Hitchcock obviously had one as the Stars’ coach. But that’s pretty much it as far as reaching the promised land goes. A lot of what this group knows is underwhelming postseason performances, and that’s a hill that can be tough to climb. It’s far from certain this is the Blues group to do it, as it’s still led by a captain who will take a minor penalty four seconds after an opposing goal versus trying to score on the next shift. The mentality in St. Louis is a losing one, and that’s a big deal come playoff time.

Edge — Dallas: This is for no few other reasons than the choker label the Blues wear, and it’s legitimate until proven wrong. The additions of Sharp and Oduya could make some difference in the locker room for the Stars, but they really have the edge here because the Blues trend so far in the wrong direction on this measurement.

Final verdict

This all seems to add up to a matchup against the Blues being a better first-round setup for the Blackhawks. While the Stars certainly have some holes, they also have some factors the Blackhawks have struggled and will likely continue to struggle with in the postseason. The Blues don’t cause those same issues, and they have a lot of trouble handling the postseason pressure and atmosphere. That could be just the edge the Blackhawks need against a group they already handled pretty well in the regular season, posting a 3-0-3 mark.

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