By Steve Silverman
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It’s dangerous to count out the defending champions, but we saw several vulnerabilities with the Chicago Blackhawks throughout the season.

While they still have their powerful core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford intact, the Blackhawks are no longer the razor sharp defensive team that could shut down opponents with a deft stick, a blocked shot or proper positioning.

The St. Louis Blues are proving it in the first round, as they have taken over in the third period of their last two playoff games, walking away with back-to-back wins in Chicago and a 3-1 series lead.

The Blackhawks have one more opportunity to get back in the series, and the Blues have three more chances to blow it. But the champs are on the verge of being knocked out.

That should be joyous news around the rest of the NHL because that means commissioner Gary Bettman will hand the Stanley Cup to a captain other than Toews in mid-June.

As the playoffs start to take shape as teams have either approached or passed the midway point of all series, the Blues are one of the Western Conference teams with a legitimate chance to win the Cup. So are the San Jose Sharks in the West, and quite possibly the Dallas Stars.

The Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks have followed similar patterns through the first three games of their respective series, losing their first two games at home before rebounding with wins on the road. While both teams entered the playoffs as clear favorites to win their series, neither seems right despite winning their last game.

The Kings are not scoring enough, and Jonathan Quick may be just a bit off of his usual form. The Ducks were not ready to compete in Game 1 and got outplayed in Game 2, and while they figured it out in Game 3, there’s no reason to believe they have regained their consistency against the Nashville Predators.

The Stars were the No. 1 team in the Western Conference during the regular season, but they may have problems once they get past the Minnesota Wild in the first round. Their goaltending is often shaky, and high-scoring Tyler Seguin is still feeling the impact of his injured Achilles.

Look for the Blues and Sharks to meet in the Western Conference finals. Both of these teams have been dogged by playoff failures in the past, and both are playing with the kind of fervor and speed that they have lacked in the past.

While the Sharks have top-level stars such as Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, it’s hard not to like the Blues. Vladimir Tarasenko is a brilliant sniper, and teammates Jaden Schwartz and Alex Steen will help the Blues get to the Stanley Cup Final this year.

That brings us to the Eastern Conference, and New York fans are used to seeing the Rangers advance deep into the playoffs. After getting to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and the Eastern Conference finals last year, the Blueshirts are having a difficult time with Pittsburgh. The Penguins made a brilliant move when they inserted Mike Sullivan behind the bench because he looked at his roster and made an adjustment.

MORE: Hartnett: Rangers Need To Figure Out How To Escape Penguins’ Trap

Instead of the defense-first philosophy that the Penguins were attempting to play under former coach Mike Johnston, Sullivan realized the Penguins’ best attribute was their speed and offensive prowess. That speed has helped them gain a 2-1 edge on the Rangers and will likely help them win the series.

The Florida Panthers may be bigger, stronger and more talented than the Islanders, but there is something about the Islanders that can be formidable. New York has shown it can respond when pressed.

The Isles overcame a 2-0 deficit in Game 3 that would have been 3-0 if a goal had not been overturned. New York came all the way back to win in overtime on Thomas Hickey’s right-place-at-the-right-time strike.

This team is loaded with leadership in John Tavares and Johnny Boychuk, and there’s no reason the Islanders can’t finish off a Florida team that may have played over its head this season.

The Islanders will have the best chance of any Eastern team to beat the Washington Capitals. The Capitals will finish off the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 4 or 5, and they will do the same to the Penguins.

The Islanders have the team to get by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the next round, and then square off with the Capitals.

MORE: Capellini: Islanders’ Pulock Thriving Under Intense Playoff Spotlight

Washington’s history is one of numerous playoff failures, but this appears to be a much different team than it has ever had. Braden Holtby has joined the NHL’s goaltending elite, and Alex Ovechkin no longer has to do everything himself. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman John Carlson are capable of coming through in pressure situations and taking over when the game is on the line.

The Islanders should be able to win one game in Washington and one in Brooklyn, but they will have to raise their level of play if they are going to get any more than that.

The Caps are too good and too hungry to get stopped before they get to the Stanley Cup Final. It will be a memorable final between the Blues and Caps, and one of those teams will win their first Stanley Cup.

Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy


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