By LOU KORAC
CHICAGO -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was having somefun with the media gathering for his pregame press conference Wednesday afternoon at United Center.
And he was doing it, why? Because he knew he could, and he knew the question of the day was -- and is -- will captain David Backes return to the lineup tonight in Game 4 of the Western Conference First Round series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
If Backes, who missed Game 3 after taking that crushing blow to the head from Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook that resulted in a three-game suspension, does make his return, the veteran coach wasn't tipping his hand.
"He's not going to play unless he's healthy. You never know, he could be skating at another rink," Hitchcock joked. "He could be doing something else, you don't know that stuff. There's a lot of rinks here in Chicago. So he could be doing other things. But he's not going in the lineup unless he's a player.
"If he's a player, the way he plays is going to have a huge impact in the series. So if he skated somewhere else and is in fine-tune conditioning, you'll see him tonight."
Hitchcock didn't close the door on his captain returning to the lineup Wednesday, nor did he set in stone the lines that were skating.
"On this one, I could probably be a liar," Hitchcock said. "I wouldn't evaluate our roster right now, until you see it tonight. Just be careful. Put in pencil today, not pen. I might be fooling with you all today."
One player the Blues will not have for the remainder of the series is veteran left wing Brenden Morrow. Morrow played in Game 1 of the series, sat out Game 2 before returning to play Game 3. He missed the final three games of the regular season with a foot injury. Derek Roy, who Hitchcock said "had a very good first game; he got whacked around a little bit" in Game 2 and missed the last game, skated with a regular line Wednesday and is expected to return to action.
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Patrik Berglund saw his first action of the series in Monday's 2-0 loss that brought the Blackhawks back into the series, with the Blues leading 2-1.
Berglund only played 11:01 but did deliver three hits and was five of eight in the faceoff dot.
"He did fine," Hitchcock said of Berglund. "He was a little tentative at the start. Atmosphere, same as (T.J. Oshie) was the first game, but they both got better. Osh was a lot better, a more impact in Game 2. We expect Bergie to have a big impact in the game (tonight)."
To enter the series midway is tough for anybody, especially when the playoff series has been magnified the way it has.
"Obviously not ideal," Berglund said. "I wanted to play from the start, but it is what it is. It was a little tough in the beginning to see what you can do, but after a while, I think I adjusted.
"I think I got a little more comfortable, but obviously conditioning-wise, it wasn't there throughout the whole game. I obviously played through that game and had another good practice this morning."
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Another key forward who returned after the series began was Oshie. Oshie, who did not play in Game 1, returned to play Games 2 and 3. His game wasn't quite where it needed to be in Game 2, but Oshie, who missed three games (two to end the regular season) with the upper-body injury after taking a hit to the head from Minnesota Wild's Mike Rupp, played the most minutes of any forward in the game Monday (23:28).
"Yeah, I feel a lot better today even than I did yesterday," Oshie said Wednesday afternoon. "Hopefully I'll keep improving and be a difference-maker."
Oshie's biggest adjustment?
"I think just catching up to the play," he said. "My injury's a little different than Bergie's, but just catching up to the play and being able to make reads. Everything's magnified in the playoffs. One mistake seems to end up in the back of the net. Just catching up was tough for me, but I feel like my timing's back and tonight should be my best game of the series."
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The Blackhawks' top offensive weapons (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa) can give the best of teams fits. But through three games in this series, the Blues have done a pretty good job of neutralizing the quartet and not allowing them to dictate play and go on scoring binges.
So far, the Blues have held the four to two goals and four points (Toews has three of them) while keeping Sharp and Hossa off the board.
What's been the key to success?
"I think the biggest challenge and probably the thing we've done best is that we've been able to handle their speed and really not allow them to get into those neutral zone transitions that they love," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "They do a great job of turning pucks over. As soon as their forwards recognize it, they get on the offensive side of it very fast. That's when you see those fast-paced plays from Kane and Toews that they love."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville reunited Toews and Kane on the same line, and made it double-tough for the Blues to defend the pair.
"I don't think he's fighting very fair frankly," Hitchcock joked about Quenneville. "I don't like that. But we'll find a way to figure it out. You see them so much together. They used to always come out after penalties and stuff like that so you're used to it. When you've got good players competing at a high level, it's always a challenge. Both teams have had unsung heroes. They got some great minutes when they put (Andrew) Shaw and (Kris) Versteeg on the same line with Kane or whatever. They got good minutes. Now they put (Brandon) Saad there, they got good minutes there. We've got some great minutes from (Maxim) Lapierre's line. More offensive opportunities from Lappy's line than from probably any of the lines in the tournament so far, so that's been a good sign for us. You get these new, emerging heroes in your team and you want to keep running with it. Both teams have got that going right now."
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What is the importance of Game 4 today (8:30 p.m. on FSN, KY 98-FM)? Well for the Blues, it gives them the chance to close the series out Friday night in Game 5 at home. If Chicago wins, it becomes a best-of-3 series and both teams would have held serve on home ice.
"Every game has been so close, it's find a little advantage, find some place to exploit some weaknesses they have, they're trying to exploit some weaknesses that we have," Hitchcock said. "This gives us a chance to have almost double home-ice advantage if we win the game. It makes if a best-of-3 and they've got a little momentum, and we've got a break if we win it. Both teams are putting so much into these games that momentum is a factor, so we can really build it. We build off the way we played in the last period (of Game 3) and they can build it off the win, so it'll be a pretty big push by both groups at the start."
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Hitchcock talked after Game 3 that the Blues needed to be better on the faceoff dot. The team won only 41 percent of the draws, according to the NHL's official stat sheet, but upon further review (with review being the key word), Hitchcock had a different take on it.
"The faceoffs were bull----," he said. "The way they work on percentages there were bull---- because if you take a look at it truthfully, the draws won/loss were close to 50 percent. Where they ended up getting the wins was they won a lot of pucks that we won already. They got to loose pucks. Their wingers did a better job than our wingers did, but the actual who won the faceoff, those numbers are not correct. We went and looked at every one of them this morning, they're not right. I get the fact that you can only put one stat out there, but the loss out there was what happened after we won the puck or 50-50 was there. Their wingers took a lot of those pucks away from us and that's something we've got to address for sure."
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The Blues' projected lineup (depending on Backes' status):
Steve Ott-Alexander Steen-T.J. Oshie
Jaden Schwartz-Vladimir Sobotka-Vladimir Tarasenko
Derek Roy-Patrik Berglund-Adam Cracknell
Chris Porter-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Jordan Leopold-Roman Polak
Ryan Miller will start in goal; Brian Elliott will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Ian Cole, Carlo Colaiacovo, Dmitrij Jaskin, Magnus Paajarvi and Niklas Lundstrom. David Backes (upper body) is questionable; Brenden Morrow (foot) is out.
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The Blackhawks' probable lineup:
Bryan Bickell-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane
Patrick Sharp-Michal Handzus-Marian Hossa
Kris Versteeg-Andrew Shaw-Brandon Saad
Brandon Bollig-Marcus Kruger-Ben Smith
Duncan Keith-Sheldon Brookbank
Johnny Oduya-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Nick Leddy-Michal Rozsival
Corey Crawford will get the start in goal; Antti Raanta will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Jeremy Morin, Peter Regin, David Rundblad, Joakim Nordstrom and Klas Dahlbeck. Brent Seabrook is suspended and Nikolai Khabibulin (shoulder) is on long-term injured-reserve.