Playoff preview: Blackhawks vs. Blues

St. Louis Blues vs Chicago Blackhawks

Team Records and Head-to-Head

Blues – 52-23-7, 111 points. Goals F/A – 239-188. Fenwick Close – 53.1%

Blackhawks – 46-21-15, 107 points. Goals F/A – 261-212. Fenwick Close – 55.2%

Season Matchup – Blues won three of five matchups, twice via shootout, although they were outscored by the Blackhawks by a combined 17-14. Take away the shootout winners, and the Blackhawks outscored the Blues by a 19-14 margin.

While the Blues won three of five against the Blackhawks during the regular season, not only did Chicago outscore their longtime rivals, but as two of the victories were in the shootout, the teams each earned six points from their head-to-head battles. Of greater interest are the final two battles, both after the trade deadline acquisition of Ryan Miller by St. Louis. The Hawks won both of those games, the former of which saw Miller get the start, although he was lifted midway through the third period after surrendering the fourth goal in an eventual 4-0 defeat. It should also be noted that the defending champions outshot the upstarts from Missouri in all but their first matchup. In light of everything, it is reasonable to think that in a world without shootouts, the Blackhawks would have won at least one of the games that could not be decided in 65 minutes or less.

Offense GVT

St. Louis – 19.9 GVT

Chicago – 41.9 GVT

Advantage – Chicago – 22

More than just the additional 22 goals scored on the season, Chicago’s offensive superiority can be best illustrated by comparing the Fenwick events from both teams. Looking only at even strength, game close situations, the Blackhawks had 300 additional offensive Fenwick events, which works out to over 3.5 per game. The offensive firepower is well spread out for the Hawks, with five players (Sharp, Kane, Hossa, Toews, and Keith) ranking among the top 35 league wide in offensive GVT. In contrast, only one Blue (Steen) makes that list, and he is near its bottom.

If we want to use a different metric than GVT, a good place to start is scoring rate per 60 minutes at even strength. A common number cited as being a standard for top six forwards is around 1.75 points per 60 minutes of even strength play. Looking at all skaters who appeared in at least 20 games this year, the Blues have five such men, plus one more who missed by the slimmest of margins. Of those six, four are dealing with injuries and two (Tarasenko and Berglund) are expected to miss at least a portion of the first round.

The Blackhawks have nine such players. While superstars Kane and Toews had both missed the last few games of the regular season, all systems appear to be ‘Go’ for game one on Thursday.

Defense GVT

St. Louis – 25.6 Defensive GVT, 4.2 Goaltending GVT. 29.8 total defensive GVT

Chicago – 17.5 Defensive GVT, -12.6 Goaltending GVT. 4.9 total defensive GVT

Advantage – St. Louis – 24.9

As big as Chicago’s advantage on the offensive end is, St. Louis’ defensive supremacy is even more apparent. With one caveat. Much of the Blackhawks’ horrid marks in net come from the second and third string netminders, as Antti Raanta and Nikolai Khabibulin combined for a -12.3 GVT. Neither man should be expected to spend one minute between the pipes barring a serious injury to starter Corey Crawford. That caveat aside, and forgetting for a moment his subpar play down the stretch for the Blues, Ryan Miller is a clearly superior goalie to Crawford.

As we move to the skaters, like with any other Ken Hitchcock coached team, the Blues defensive game is a team-wide concept. While all of their regular defensemen are counted relatively evenly in terms of zone starts, the stud pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester (both Canadian Olympians) are counted on most when it comes to facing the top line of the opposition. Particularly noteworthy of their usage is that of the 22 regular blueliners (min. 30 games played) to have faced tougher opposition as measured by Corsi Quality of Competition, none have better raw Corsi numbers than either of the Blues top pairing. Most of the club’s top nine forwards are also considered to be very strong in their own ends, with Jaden Schwartz, David Backes, Vladimir Sobotka, Alex Steen and Patrik Berglund faring particularly well.

PP/PK GVT

St. Louis – 6.5 power play GVT (19.8% success rate), 9.1 shorthanded GVT (85.7% success rate).

Chicago – 4.5 power play GVT (19.5% success rate), 1.1 shorthanded GVT (81.4% success rate)

Special Teams advantage – St. Louis – 10

By rate stats, the Blues are a far more successful team on either side of the special teams war, especially so in their ability to kill penalties. And yet, despite killing over 4% more penalties than Chicago, the Blackhawks have only allowed four more actual power play goals against on the season. The reason is simple: The Blues spent far more time killing penalties than did the Blackhawks. Although the lack of discipline has not affected the Blues so much when it comes to winning games, it may have a hidden effect on their ability to score. After all, the team is far less likely to score when shorthanded than at 5-on-5. The most egregious offender has been Brenden Morrow and considering his other shortcomings at the age of 35, the Blues would be wise to consider giving him a reduced role if he is even healthy enough to suit up.

Key match-up

St. Louis Blues forwards vs the trainer’s table

The Western Conference is shaping up to be a real dog fight as only one of eight teams chock full of big nasty players will make it through to the Stanley Cup finals. It is expected that, to make it far, players will sacrifice life and limb to push their club one step forward to hockey’s ultimate platform. The Blues are hoping their postseason injury list is reversed, starting off heavy and gradually thinning out as more and more players return to game shape. As this preview is being written, it is still unknown how many of their banged up regulars will be able to dress for Game 1, but most are expected to be available. While the Chicago players dealing with injuries are no less important to their team, both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are expected to be ready. If the Blues do not have their full complement (or very close to it) of regular forwards, the six game losing streak that closed out their regular season is likely to be extended.

Key stat

The Blues have only lost one game in regulation all season in which they scored at least three goals. On March 28, with nine games remaining on their schedule, the Blues had 107 points, the most of any team in the NHL, and the best mark in the Central Division by eight points. The team, reeling with the aforementioned injury stack to their top forwards, failed to score three goals in a single game over any of their remaining matches. As  result, they won only two more and lost the Division’s top spot that would have seen them avoid such a difficult matchup for their first round opponent.

Prediction

Blues in seven. The previous sentence is contingent on the Blues showing up for Game 1 with at least five of their injured six forwards healthy and ready to fire. Without that qualifier, not only will the winning team be different, but so will the number of games needed.

Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.

Wagman

Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RAWagman.

15 thoughts on “Playoff preview: Blackhawks vs. Blues

  1. Dear Ryan,

    Care to explain your (qualified) prediction on series winner? Seems like you’re saying that the Blues must play all but one of their injured forwards in G1 and must win it to keep your faith in the team winning the series.

    That means everything, in your argument, would hinge on G1 success for the Blues, without which they lose the series.

    Is that accurate?

    Thanks.

  2. 50cal,

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear. My feeling is that player who aren’t ready to go by game 1 are unlikely to be effective later. I think the Blues are good enough to win the series if they are mostly healthy. If they are not healthy at the start of the series, I expect a physical matchup which would actually decrease their collective well-being as the series progresses and further the likelihood of a Chicago victory.

    Hope that makes things clearer.

    Thank you for reading.

  3. i like the prediction. while it seems to be a longshot to most of the general public, i think thats what makes it one i would put my money on. if st louis is heathly they will hang. blackhawk homers will always troll and complain, but whos to say kane and toews dont have rust to shake off of their own?

    • Thanks, abc. I mentioned the Kane and Toews injuries in the “Key matchup” section, but note that there was more public information about their expected availability, which leads me to believe that there will be less rust on their end.

      Then again, we all know by now that the NHL is rife with misinformation when it comes to injuries. “Lower Body injury”, anyone?

  4. Thanks, Ryan, for expatiating. And for playing it down the middle. Unlike the bonehead who commented below me.

    Clearly he’s working through his inferiority complex.

    May the better team win.

  5. And, as I typed that last comment, NHL.com announced that Backes AND Tarasenko will play in G1, but Oshie will not.

    Ryan, how does that news affect your prediction?

    Thanks, again.

      • Thanks. I respectfully disagree. I think the Hawks will bring it against a Blues team with some not-insignificant casualties that will be only exacerbated by the pounding in this series.

        To me, the X-factor is how quickly Tarasenko can ramp up to form.

        Thanks for your always thoughtful analyses.

  6. 50cal thanks for the kind words, as a guy with no dog in this fight, your words have no bearing on my self worth. I just think its funny how the only prediction disputed on this very informing and educated site was the blues over the hawks. If you wanna hear the homer predictions of hawks in 4 or 5 you can look up any Chicago media outlet and they will give them to you. The hawks are a good team, no doubt, but so are the blues this year which you should know if you follow advanced statistics. I thought this preview was well written, and I agree with the authors predicted outcome based on the numbers. It will be one hell of a series though, as we can tell from last nights game, and I would be shocked if it didn’t go the distance.

  7. Ryan, after the way game 1 went, do you think there is any chance this series doesn’t go 7 games? I think the Blues needed that game one win, and will be confident now, but the hawks will come back swinging. If the Blues can win without Oshie and Berglund, would getting one back (mainly thinking Oshie here) change your stance? I think a lot of people lost money taking the Hawks on the money line last night presuming this series would be one sided throughout, and I was surprised at how well the Blues hung with a full strength Hawks team without over 100 points worth of production in their lineup, ie: the two injured players I listed above.

  8. The way I view the playoffs is that if the teams are at 3-2 through five games, there is a 50-50 chance the series goes seven. In other words, a six game series is almost the same as a seven gamer. Seven is, of course, more fun, as we get to experience two elimination games, but six games is generally an evenly played series. So to answer your question, I think this series will definitely go six games. And 50-50 to get to a seventh afterwards.

  9. Ryan, im starting to refer to this as the heart attack series. check your arteries. Do you still think the blues take it in 7 games with it knotted at 2-2? a lot of people writing them off now saying they’ll choke again…

    • It’s hard to say. As you write – it has been an extremely tight series with a great deal of last minute turn-arounds. I still think it goes seven. Notably, neither team has won a road game yet. We are left with a best of three, with St. Louis holding the home rink advantage. I still think it comes down to health.
      In game 1, Chicago had the full lineup, St. Louis was missing Berglund and Oshie.
      In game 2, Chicago still had a full deck and St. Louis was without Berglund and Morrow (although missing Morrow may be to their benefit).
      In game 3, Chicago was without Seabrook due to the suspension, and St. Louis was missing Backes and Roy.
      Finally, yesterday, in game 4, Chicago played without Seabrook again, while St. Louis was still without Backes and now without Morrow again.
      A lot depends on how quickly Backes can get back. Unfortunately, concussions are very fickle beasts.

      • im starting to think that whoever wins game 5 will win the series…to this point it seems no team has outplayed the other, hockey is a game of inches and bounces thats for sure

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