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Blackhawks vs. Blues will be speed vs. brawn

Hawks vs. Blues

First Round

G1: 7 p.m. Thursday
at St. Louis, CSN

G2: 2 p.m. Saturday
at St. Louis, Ch. 5

G3: 7:30 p.m. Monday
at United Center, CSN

G4: 8:30 p.m. next Wed.
at United Center, CSN

G5: 7 p.m. April 25
at St. Louis*, CSN

G6: 2 p.m. April 27
at United Center*, Ch. 5

G7: TBD April 29
at St. Louis*, CSN

Best of seven; *-if necessary

Blackhawks vs. Blues: First-round playoff schedule
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Patrick Kane returns to practice, 'hasn’t missed a beat'
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Updated: May 17, 2014 6:41AM

There’s really no way of knowing what to expect from this first-round playoff series between the Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues.

The Hawks largely cruised through the second half of the season, waiting to flip the switch in the playoffs, and have been without one or both of their biggest stars for a month. The Blues dominated the league all season before falling off a cliff in the final two weeks. They’ve been decimated by injuries but expect just about everyone back for the series, likely at various levels of effectiveness. Momentum, health, home-ice advantage and playoff experience all will play major roles.

The only safe prediction?


‘‘They play a hard game,’’ Hawks forward Ben Smith said. ‘‘They leave their mark.’’

The Hawks saw the lingering effects the bruising Blues can have on a team last spring. The Los Angeles Kings survived a grueling six-game series with the Blues in the first round, but by the time they got through the San Jose Sharks and faced the Hawks in the conference final, they were a shell of themselves, the walking wounded, and the Hawks steamrolled them in five games.

No matter what state the Blues are in physically and mentally, their game plan won’t change. They’ll try to get in the Hawks’ heads by rattling their bodies. They’ll try to test Patrick Kane’s left knee early and often, they’ll hit Jonathan Toews whenever they can, they’ll start scrums after whistles, and they’ll pick fights at opportune times.

It’s a classic matchup of the Blues’ brawn against the Hawks’ speed. The Blues will try to slow the Hawks down with physical play, and the Hawks will try to avoid the physical play with speed.

‘‘We’ve got to go out there and use our speed,’’ forward Andrew Shaw said. ‘‘And hopefully they can’t catch us to hit us.’’

Few players in the NHL are better at avoiding contact than Kane, who has been using his quickness and elusiveness to make up for his lack of size since he was a kid. But Kane will be wearing a brace on the knee that has kept him out since March 19, and he knows the Blues will be zeroing in on him like wounded prey.

‘‘I would expect that even if I wasn’t coming back from an injury, to be honest with you,’’ Kane said. ‘‘That’s the way they’ve always been. They’ve always tried to play physical on the skilled players.’’

The Blues are loaded with big hitters, and David Backes, Steve Ott and Barret Jackman, in particular, have a knack for getting under opponents’ skin and drawing retaliatory penalties. The Blues have a top-10 power play and will be looking for any edge they can get.

The Hawks have been defiant in the past, insisting they can win any series in any style. But they also know they’re at their best when playing a puck-possession game, using their speed and skill to dominate the puck and the game.

So not only do the Hawks have to avoid getting hit, they need to avoid getting sucked into a Blues style of game.

In other words, keep your head on a swivel, but also keep it in the game.

‘‘We deal with teams that always outhit us, and that’s OK because we probably have the puck a little bit more,’’ Kane said. ‘‘I think maybe we got caught up in it a little bit last year against the Bruins, where maybe we were worried about [Zdeno] Chara a little too much the first couple of games. But as we settled down and got into the series, we kind of took over a little bit.’’

It won’t be easy. Backes and Toews have tussled, and Jackman always seems to have one eye (and often one glove, or one stick, or one shoulder) on Kane. Hawks coach Joel Quenneville has offered Kane some protection, putting him on a line with Shaw and Bryan Bickell. But going toe-to-toe with the Blues is a losing formula. This series — which has the feel and cachet of a conference final — is not going to come down to whether the Hawks can hit with the Blues.

It’s going to come down to whether they can withstand the Blues.

‘‘They’re going to play the way they play, and we’ll play the way we play,’’ Smith said. ‘‘In a best-of-seven series, we’ll see who comes out on top.’’


Twitter: @marklazerus

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