Updated: May 17, 2014 6:47AM
The St. Louis Blues were a preseason favorite to win the Stanley Cup and played like it for 26 weeks of a 28-week season. The Blackhawks are the defending champions and racked up the second-most points in team history.
And neither is terribly happy with where it sits entering the first round of the playoffs.
‘‘It’s not very often you get 107 points and you’ve got to start on the road,’’ Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said, shrugging.
Despite the injuries, the slumps and the uncertainties, each team is good enough and deep enough to win the Cup. But one will be out in the first round — a failure, at least relative to the expectations. Here are four X-factors that could determine which one it is.
1. Comeback kids
Noteworthy: Jonathan Toews hasn’t played in two weeks. Patrick Kane hasn’t played in four weeks. Vladimir Tarasenko hasn’t played in a month. David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Brenden Morrow are coming off injuries, too. These two teams, when healthy, are two of the very best in the NHL. But we don’t know what they are now, and it’ll likely take a couple of games before we do. Toews and Kane are rested and recharged, but are they 100 percent? Will their timing be off? And will they be willing and able to take contact? Can Tarasenko come in midway through the series and be a difference-maker? Will the physical Backes and Morrow be effective or weakened? And will they all stay healthy through what promises to be a grueling series? The answers to these questions likely will determine the winner.
Quoteworthy: ‘‘[Even] for anyone who’s been playing right until the end of the season, it’s going to be an adjustment with the speed of the playoffs,’’ Toews said. ‘‘So everyone’s going to have to step it up a little bit.’’
2. Bickell and Hyde
Noteworthy: Bryan Bickell earned a $16 million contract on the strength of his breakout playoff performance last season, then promptly spent the first five months of the season dealing with injury, confidence issues and benchings. But he started to find his game — that net-crashing, bone-rattling game — over the last month. He wants to be considered a big-game performer, and a matchup with the Blues suits him. With Kane on his right wing, it’s up to Bickell to clear some room for him and to go hard to the net to clean up after him.
Quoteworthy: ‘‘When I think of myself as a hockey player, I feel I’m a playoff kind of guy,’’ Bickell said. ‘‘The regular season is important, but the playoffs is the most important time. That’s where the physicality goes up a level, and it tends to bring more out of me. It sparks me.’’
3. Home cooking
Noteworthy: The Hawks had home-ice advantage in every series last spring. Not this year. Even with their late slide, the Blues were a sparkling 28-9-4 at home, and the Hawks went just 5-5 on the road in last year’s playoffs. Lose both games in St. Louis, and the Hawks will be in serious trouble. They need at least a split in Games 1 and 2. They should have a little help, too. Despite their ‘‘Keep the Red Out’’ campaign, there’s always a big swath of red at Scottrade Center. And with tickets in St. Louis going for less than half what they’re going for in Chicago, surely plenty of Hawks fans will make the four-hour drive.
Quoteworthy: ‘‘It seems like home ice, especially in a series like this, can be an advantage,’’ Kane said. ‘‘But we’ll try to eliminate that right away.’’
4. Play your game
Noteworthy: The Blues will poke and prod and jostle and jaw. They will do everything they can do provoke a reaction, or a retaliation, out of the Hawks. And the referees always see the retaliation, even when they don’t see what prompted it. The Blues have one of the best power plays in the league. Andrew Shaw learned last spring how to toe the line. He’ll need to do it again this year.
Quoteworthy: ‘‘We need to stick with what we’re good at, and not fall into their game,’’ Marcus Kruger said.
Two or three weeks ago, this would have been a very different series and a different prediction. But the Blues are beaten physically and mentally, time is short, and the Hawks’ speed and experience wins out. Hawks in 6.