For the second time in three seasons, the Blues will face the rival Blackhawks in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Many speculate that whoever emerges victors in the series will also hoist the Cup later in the summer.
“If that doesn’t get us up, then we have some issues,” said Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. “I think guys are really looking forward to that challenge and we have to be ready because they are the Blackhawks. They have been the best team the last six years.”
The Blues closed out the 2015-16 regular season with a grueling loss to Washington, sealing a date with Chicago when the playoffs begin next week. The Note finished the year with a 49-24-9 record and 107 points. Their point total was good enough to secure the second seed in the Western Conference and Central Division and guarantee home ice in the first round. But it wasn’t enough to save them from a date with perhaps the scariest postseason team in the West. According to Blues players, that’s okay.
“I think everyone in our division looks at the Blackhawks as the team you have to beat to move on,” said Shattenkirk. “For us to get a chance now to take them on in the first round, it’s going to be pretty special.”
“Might as well start at the top,” said head coach Ken Hitchcock. “They are the only team in the league with the knowledge of what it takes. So, we get first crack at them.”
The Blues had a chance to avoid Chicago, but they needed a win and a Dallas loss on Saturday. Neither happened. Had it, the Blues would have faced Minnesota in round one, the team that most recently handled the Blues in the postseason.
“Look at our division,” said forward Alexander Steen. “There is no easy matchup anywhere. To win, you have to go through everybody. It’ll be a good series. We are excited to get this going here.”
The Blues won the season series against the Blackhawks 3-2 but that offers little consolation as Chicago comes into the series as the defending Stanley Cup Champions and having won three Cups in the last five years.
“I think there are some games you throw out the window,” Hitchcock said when asked if the regular-season series offers any insight into the upcoming games. “I think for us there are a couple of games we can take from and I know there is one game they can take from, for sure. I think both teams are more fixated in their game and playing it as well as they can.”
For the Blues, the key will be shutting down the Blackhawks’ top players, which most of the league has struggled to do over the last six seasons. Chicago forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are known forces, and rookie winger Artemi Panarin just wrapped up a 77-point inaugural season. The matchup is a scary proposition for any opponent.
“Our best players are going to have to be our best players in this series,” said Hitchcock. “Our best players are going to have to outplay their best players. That’s a big challenge and a lot of our guys are looking forward to that.
“You’ve got two really good teams going at it. You’ve got two teams with good depth, two teams that invest a lot in their game. We’ve got to gather in the knowledge.”
The Blues received a first-hand taste of Chicago’s postseason experience two years ago in a heartbreaking 4-2 series loss. It is an experience on the forefront of most people’s minds. The players don’t fall into that category.
“I think the beauty of this team this year is that we really do have a new attitude, a new energy in here,” said Shattenkirk. “For me, personally, I feel like it’s a fresh start. We are coming in with experience but we have new faces in the young guys and none of that stuff weighs on them, it’s not on their shoulders. We just kind of have that fresh attitude coming into it.”
Though the full first round schedule is not expected to be released until Sunday evening, it’s believed likely that the Blues-Blackhawks series will begin Wednesday in St. Louis, setting up for a Friday Game 2. The team has an off-day on Sunday and will begin playoff preparations Monday morning.
“It’s going to be intense games, like always,” said Steen. “We are dying to get this going.”
St. Louis has failed to advance past the first round in each of the last three postseasons. They have combined for just six wins over that stretch, losing each series 4-2. They know this series is more of a must-win than ever before, but there is no desperation in the air, only excitement. With only four losses since Feb. 28, the Blues may be hitting their stride at the right time.
“This team is ready to go,” said Steen. “The way that we have played since the All-Star break, how we have been able to roll the lines over and play where we keep coming at people in waves, that’s something we are going to have to do in the playoffs. It’s first to four.”