After Friday’s win vs. Columbus, the Hawks are now two points away from locking up the division and top seed in the Western Conference. A win or a Minnesota regulation loss in the next game will get the job done. This, of course, is only sewing up the inevitable reality that we’ve known for the past few weeks.
Being the No. 1 overall seed means the Hawks will draw the second wild card team, which, as of today, is the Nashville Predators. The Preds, Blues and Flames have been rotating in and out of that spot, and may do so until the last day of the season. So there’s a good chance we may not know the Hawks’ opponent until the very last minute.
Let’s take a look at those three teams and what each matchup could mean for the Hawks.
St. Louis Blues
Everyone pretty much wrote off the Blues a few months ago after they fired Ken Hitchcock. Even the Blues front office seemed ready to blow it up and start over after trading top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline. But interim head coach Mike Yeo has been able to get St. Louis to hang around inside the playoff line and finally clinch a spot last night.
With five games left, St. Louis is currently sitting in third place in the division with a 42-28-7 record and 91 points. Their special teams numbers aren’t bad with a 21.6 PP% and 84.3 PK%. They’re getting 28.2 shots per game and giving up 28 a game.
On paper it looks like the Blackhawks would boatrace the Blues in a first round series. It ain’t last year. The Hawks are better. It’s such a mismatch for St. Louis.
But playoff series aren’t played on paper, and when Chicago and St. Louis meet up in the postseason it’s always going to be cringeworthy.
One advantage is that the Hawks have seen this movie before. A few times, actually. So have the Blues, but it took them playing a shell of a Hawks team, Brouwer falling all over himself, and a Seabrook double-post in Game 7 to even get the job done.
Again, on paper this looks like the easiest matchup for the Hawks. No Shattenkirk will limit the Blues defense, and Lord knows Jake Allen won’t be a brick wall like Elliott was a year ago. The one factor that comes to mind is preventing Tarasenko, a player who loves to torch the Hawks in April, from stealing a series. Other than that, the Blues don’t cause me much concern.
If the season ended today the Preds would be headed North to the UC for the first round. Much like the Blues, the Hawks have seen this movie before, too. A few times…
In their two playoff meetings, the Preds have given the Hawks all they can handle. Each series has been a fight for Chicago, and this year wouldn’t be any different. The Preds knocked off top seeded Anaheim in seven games just one year ago (granted that’s a normal occurance for Bruce Boudreau and the Ducks). So they’re accustomed to this “underdog” position come April.
With five games left Nashville has a 39-27-11 record with 89 points. They’re carrying a 19.6 PP%, a 80.1 PK%, and averaging 31.1 shots per game.
Again, on paper, and to the eyes, the Hawks appear to be the better team. But Nashville’s speed to the outside could cause some issues for the Hawks defense. Forwards like Arvidsson, Forsberg and Johansen could create chaos. Also, any time P.K. Subban is on the other team there is cause for concern. He’s that much of a game changer. The main question for me would be about Pekka Rinne. He has the pedigree to be great, but the Hawks have managed to figure him out many times before. Could be catch fire and steal a series? I’m not sure.
Out of the three teams listed here the Flames would be the least familiar for the Hawks. The two teams haven’t met up in the playoffs since the first round in 2009 when the Hawks won in six (sky point). The Flames have been one of the league’s hottest teams (pun intended) in the second half of the year. This will be their second playoff appearance since 2009, so you know that great fanbase is incredibly hungry for playoff hockey.
The Flames have four games left to play, sitting with 92 points and a 44-30-4 record. They’re averaging 2.73 goals a game, and 29.4 shots per. They are also finding success killing penalties, owning a 81.5 PK%.
Calgary is the one team here that I think could really give the Hawks some problems. The Flames have a ton of young and talented forwards. Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett and Sean Monahan are all gamebreakers who have all come to age. They’re fast and dangerous.
Calgary also has some old Hawk blood on the current roster: Troy Brouwer, Michael Frolik and Kris Versteeg. How much would their experience playing in Chicago help Calgary strategize against the Hawks? Who knows.
I think this would be a fantastically fun series to watch. The Saddledome is not an easy place to play, and these young Flames have found a way to create problems for many teams. The key is if Brian Elliott can duplicate what he did against the Hawks last year for St. Louis. If he can make the Hawks have issues denting twine, and Crawford isn’t super, this series could be problematic.
The Pacific Division is still totally up for grabs with a week left in the season. The Flames are only four points behind Anaheim (96) for first place, three behind Edmonton (95), and one behind the fading Sharks (93). So there could be a major shakeup in the next few days affecting these matchups.
There’s even an outside chance the Hawks could draw San Jose, Edmonton or Anaheim if they fall far enough. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.