Heading into the final week of the regular season, the St. Louis Blues were in the running to capture the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top point-earning team.
Instead, an 0-6-0 skid knocked the Blues out of first place in the Central Division, where they finished a point behind the Colorado Avalanche to earn a much-tougher first-round matchup.
The good news for St. Louis is that it is getting healthy. A rash of injuries contributed to the club's season-ending slump and forwards David Backes, Vladimir Sobotka, T.J. Oshie, Brenden Morrow and Patrik Berglund are considered questionable for the start of this series.
However, a number of those players have returned to practice and Oshie, Backes and Sobotka could all play in Game 1.
Though St. Louis is making its third straight postseason appearance, the big change comes in net. Brian Elliott had served as the starting goaltender in both playoff runs after teaming with Jaroslav Halak to man in the pipes in the regular season, but Halak was shipped to Buffalo in late February as part of the package that netted the Blues goaltender Ryan Miller from the Sabres.
St. Louis is counting on Miller to be the difference maker and get it over the hump following last season's first-round exit.
Miller was 10-8-1 with a 2.47 goals against average and .903 save percentage in 19 starts with the Blues and is 25-22 lifetime in the postseason with a 2.47 GAA and .917 save percentage. That includes two deep runs with the Sabres in 2006 and '07.
In front of Miller is a defense that is anchored by two Norris-caliber skaters in Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. The duo combined for a plus-46 rating and Pietrangelo posted a career-high 43 assists while matching a personal best with 51 points.
The 24-year-old has been as advertised since the Blues took him fourth overall in 2008, while Bouwmeester has his career on track after a bit of a lull while playing with the Calgary Flames from 2009-10 until his trade to the Blues during last season.
Kevin Shattenkirk paced Blues defensemen with 10 goals and added 35 assists while finding the back of the net seven times on the power play. Barret Jackman is a steady presence to the pairing and coach Ken Hitchcock will pick between Ian Cole, Jordan Leopold and Carlo Colaiacovo for his third pairing with Roman Polak.
Offensively, the Blues averaged 2.92 goals per game and saw five skaters reach the 20-goal mark: Alexander Steen, Backes, Jaden Schwartz, Oshie and Vladimir Tarasenko. All but Tarasenko topped the 50-point mark and he probably would have joined the group if not for a broken right thumb that held him out of the season's final 15 games.
Tarasenko, who had 21 goals in 64 contests, could return to action at some point in this series.
Steen had a career year with 33 goals and 62 points, while Oshie also set career highs across the board with 21 goals, 39 assists and 60 points. They are the first set of Blues players to reach 60 points in the same season since Brad Boyes and Paul Kariya in 2007-08.
Backes, the club's captain, is one of the best two-way forwards in the game right now and Schwartz's 25 goals as a 21-year-old made him the fourth- youngest Blues skater to ever reach that mark.
Morrow, Berglund and Derek Roy round out solid depth that helped St. Louis win a franchise-record 52 games this season. Morrow, Roy and Leopold all have over 60 games of playoff experience as well.
St. Louis was near the top this season in special teams, tying for fifth on the power play (19.8 percent) while ranking second on the penalty kill (85.7 percent).
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 27-16-5 (3rd place, Central)
2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Minnesota 4-1 in conference quarterfinals, defeated Detroit 4-3 in conference semifinals, defeated Los Angeles 4-1 on conference finals, defeated Boston 4-2 in Stanley Cup Finals
The good news is that the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks are back in the playoffs for a sixth straight season.
The great news is that forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane appear as though they will be ready to go for Game 1.
Chicago won the Central Division last season in a lockout-shortened campaign and battled its way to a second Stanley Cup title in four years. The Blackhawks now begin a quest to become the first repeat champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98.
They have to be considered one of the favorites even though they ended third in the division this season. That finish came following a great start that was negated a bit by a 5-6-0 skid to conclude the schedule.
Injuries contributed to that as Kane missed the final 12 games with a lower- body injury, while Toews sat out the last six with an ailment to his upper body.
However, both are ready to go for this series.
That bulks up Chicago's talented top-six that also includes Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and the up-and-coming Brandon Saad.
Sharp continues to shine as he potted 34 goals on the campaign while reaching a career high with 78 points, while Hossa contributed 30 goals and 30 assists despite missing 10 games. Kane and Toews ended with 69 and 68 points, respectively, Andrew Shaw reached the 20-goal mark and Saad fell one short with 19.
Shaw is part of the incredible depth possessed by the Blackhawks, who have solid role players in Kris Versteeg, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith along with veterans Michal Handzus and Bryan Bickell.
The depth continues at the blue line, where Chicago has an outstanding top pairing in former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and partner Brent Seabrook.
Keith matched a career high with 55 assists and set a new best with 61 points while playing in 79 games, while Seabrook matched Nick Leddy for the most goals among a Blackhawks defenseman with six.
Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya also thrive in shutting down opponents and each finished the season plus-11.
Crawford didn't slow down after helping Chicago win the Cup a season ago as he went 32-16-10 with a 2.26 goals against average and .917 save percentage in 59 games, including 56 starts. Backup Antti Raanta made 22 starts this season in part because Crawford missed 10 games in mid-December due to a lower-body injury.
Crawford is 21-15 with a 2.04 GAA in the postseason, while Hossa has 43 goals and 113 points in 152 career playoff games.
In all, the Blackhawks have nine players who have skated in at least 73 postseason games.
One area to watch is Chicago's penalty kill, which ranked just 19th at 81.4 percent.
While this will mark the 11th all-time playoff series for these two clubs, they are meeting for the first time since the Blues ousted the Blackhawks in five games of the 2002 conference quarterfinals.
Chicago, though, has won seven of the 10 all-time series.
St. Louis went 3-2-0 in the season series, with two of those wins coming in a shootout. The clubs also combined for nine power-play goals, so staying out of the box is key.
Miller faced the Blackhawks twice this season, once with the Blues and another time with the Sabres, and lost both while giving up six goals. Crawford was 2-1-1 with a 1.71 GAA in his four games against the Blues on the season.
Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester had five assists each in the five meetings, while Tarasenko, Backes, Steen and Schwartz all lit the lamp twice.
Kane and Sharp had two goals and four assists each in the season series, while Toews notched a goal and three helpers.
This has the potential to be one of the more exciting first-round series as the clubs matchup well. The Blackhawks are the higher-scoring team, but the Blues play slightly better on the defensive side.
One X-factor is just how hard it is to repeat as champion and the Blackhawks certainly have a tough first-round to get through. Factor in St. Louis' club- record 24 victories in one-goal games on the season and the edge goes ever-so slightly to the Blues.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Blues in 7