By LOUIE KORAC
CHICAGO -- Step by step, the Blues have been given goals, and each time, they knock the door down and reach uncharted territory.
First, it was clinching a playoff berth for the first time since the 2008-09 season and only the second time since the lockout.
Next up is the Central Division title and it's up for grabs when the Blues (48-20-9) play against a division-foe, the Chicago Blackhawks (42-26-9) at United Center.
Coupled with Detroit's surprising loss at Columbus Wednesday night, the Blues have the chance to wrap up their first division title since 1999-2000 with a regulation or overtime win over the Blackhawks.
"It'll definitely be a good accomplishment for us," winger T.J. Oshie said. "You look at the points that are in our division and the teams that are in our division ... even Columbus coming up with a big win (Wednesday). It's a tough division and to be at the top of that would be a good steppingstone for this team. It would be a steppingstone because we want to get up to that big goal at the end, but it's definitely something we'd like to have on the resume."
The Blues have a chance to knock the Red Wings off the perch for a change, as Detroit, which has clinched a playoff berth for the 21st straight season, has owned the Central, winning it in nine of the last 10 seasons.
"This would be a good feeling for someone else to be able to do this other than those big two (Detroit and Nashville) and maybe sometime down the road give them something to think about," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We've got lots of goals in front of us now between the Jennings (Trophy), the division, the conference, the Presidents' (Trophy) ... they're all obtainable. They're in our control.
"We spent seven months getting to this stage. We want to just keep going. We don't want to give up something that we've earned and kept for a little while. We've got teams pushing us in every aspect. The loss for Detroit to Columbus opens up a door for us tonight, so hopefully we jump all over it."
For a team with so many younger players who haven't experienced what's been presented to them, the Blues have been even-keeled and not looked too far ahead and lost sight of what's in front of them.
"There's been a lot of patience with this team from the fans and management and players," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "To be in the position we are and contending for first place in the division and the conference and potentially overall, it's pretty gratifying and it shows the hard work we've put in this year.
"Everybody's smart enough in this room to know that the Presidents' Trophy isn't going to get you anything in the playoffs. It doesn't give you any freebies, any first-round byes or guarantees you're going to go to the Stanley Cup Finals. We all know the toughest part is still to come. We're excited about the potential, but you look at our game in Tampa Bay to be the first to clinch a playoff spot, we didn't bring out any champagne. It was business as usual and moved on."
Said winger David Perron: "It would be a great step for us. We want to start clinching whatever we can clinch."
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Perron and Oshie were named as the Blues' representatives to compete for the cover of ES Sports' NHL13, which will come down to fan voting.
Fans can go to NHL.com/covervote and vote for their favorite player to represent the next cover, but Perron didn't waste any time spicing up the offer for fans if they choose to pick him.
If the Sherbrooke, Quebec native is selected, Perron will randomly pick one fan to receive a 60-minute private skating session as well as a jersey, stick, gloves and helmet that Perron uses, courtesy of Reebok.
"It's only an hour of my time and a few pieces of equipment," Perron said. "The point is to give back to the fans, who are going to vote on you to maybe be on there. It's having fun with it more than anything. I talked with my agent (Allan Walsh) about it and we thought it was a good way to be maybe a little different from the other guys.
"I was surprised by (the selection). I think it's a cool way for the fans to vote for whoever's going to be the next guy on there. ... Hopefully the fans enjoy it and it's something I thought about for a while to do it and it's important to do it."
When told of Perron's giveaways, Oshie thought he'd chime in with an idea of his own:
"Hopefully they can just watch my play and hopefully that's enough to win the fans over," Oshie quipped. "I'll be like Wal-Mart, who says they'll match it. You bring in the better offer and they'll match it, so I'll match Perry. Whatever he wants to do, I'll do.
"I might just stay old-fashioned and let the play decide."
Oshie even went as far to say he helped Perron with his idea.
"In the morning, I saw him at breakfast and I made sure he knew what to stay," Oshie joked. "I told him to look at my tweet if he needed any ideas and I guess he wanted to one-up me and go above and beyond and start offering skating lessons ... I don't know what he threw out there."
Teammate Chris Stewart was within earshot of Oshie's interview with reporters and took the joking a step further: "Win a date with T.J. Oshie!"
Both players grew up and are quite familiar with the EA Sports collection of games and both are grateful to be part of the voting process.
"It's going to be fun for me and Perry to go back and forth even though in the end, if one of us doesn't win, we want the other one to win," Oshie said. "... It's a fun thing, fun thing to be a part of for the fans. EA Sports is a good game. I grew up playing their games all the way up, NHL, NFL, NBA ... you name it. It's a fun thing for the fans, fun thing for the players."
Perron said it was the only game he requested growing up for Christmas from his parents.
"I bought every single game ever since it started that I can remember," Perron said. "That was the only Christmas present I would ask for and I would get pretty pretty much when I was growing up.
"I was really excited every year because as much as my parents were saying that they weren't going to get that, I just kind of knew that I would get it for every Christmas. My brother and I would play until we tried to win the Cup."
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Two games since his return have produced better than expected results for Alex Steen, who missed 39 games with a concussion.
And with each passing game, the question that's posed is will Steen move up into a top six role because of his invaluable play at both ends of the ice? Steen has been paired with Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner on the third line, a line that's played together earlier this season. But Hitchcock likes what he's getting there.
"I don't know. If David Perron and Schwartzy (Jaden Schwartz) play like they do, I'm not sure. I think (Steen) can elevate our third line for us. I think eventually we're going to want to see that, but right now, he's done a good job where he's at.
"That line has had a lot more impact in the game than it had before. I think right now, we're just going to leave it. I think in-game, we might make some adjustments if we think that we're going to have to make some changes, but for right now, we'll just stick with that."
The trio produced a pinpoint goal, with Langenbrunner picking it up, in Tuesday's 3-0 win over Nashville.
"They're in the offensive zone more," Hitchcock said of the trio. "They're creating scoring chances. When they were playing before, there was a negative balance on scoring chances. Now there's a positive balance on scoring chances. They were giving up more than they were getting before and now it's the exact opposite. That's a good sign for us."
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Tonight's probable Blues Lineup:
David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-Chris Stewart
Alex Steen-Jason Arnott-Jamie Langenbrunner
Vladimir Sobotka-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kent Huskins-Kris Russell
Jaroslav Halak gets his first start since March 21 at Anaheim; Brian Elliott, who's started the last three games -- all shutouts to tie Greg Millen's franchise record -- will back up tonight.
The Blues activated winger Matt D'Agostini, who missed the last 25 games with a concussion but he will not play tonight. Also, Andy McDonald (shoulder) will not play but Hitchcock said he would play Saturday vs. Columbus.
"He's up and ready and now he's available for selction and another piece in the puzzle," Hitchcock said of D'Agostini. "We'll wait. We're certainly going to play him in some games here before the end of the regular season to get him ready. It will be good to have him back in, but not tonight. We don't want to change the lineup that had success.
"Andy is going to play on Saturday. He needs two more days of getting beat on a little bit, but he's ready to go. He'll be ready to go by Saturday for sure."
Also scratched are Chris Porter, B.J. Crombeen and Ian Cole. D Roman Polak (bruised knee) did not make the trip but could return to the lineup Saturday.
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The Blackhawks' probable lineup:
Andrew Brunette-Patrick Kane-Marian Hossa
Patrick Sharp-Marcus Kruger-Viktor Stalberg
Bryan Bickell-Dave Bolland-Andrew Shaw
Brandon Bollig-Jamal Mayers-Michael Frolik
Niklas Hjalmarsson-Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya-Nick Leddy
Sean O'Donnell-Dylan Olsen
Corey Crawford gets the nod in goal; Ray Emery, who missed Tuesday's game at New Jersey, returns and will be the backup.
Center Jonathan Toews (concussion) skated for the 10th consecutive day and told reporters he's "very close" to being cleared for contact, meaning any day now. But he will miss tonight's game. D Steve Montador re-injured himself Tuesday at New Jersey and is out with an upper-body injury. D Duncan Keith is serving the third of a five-game suspension for hit elbow against Vancouver's Daniel Sedin last week. D Sami Lepisto (lower-body) is skating but out of action. Healthy scratches include C Brendan Morrison and RW Jimmy Hayes.