Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Blues, Blackhawks clash in playoffs for first time since 2002

Best-of-seven series opens tonight at Scottrade Center in battle of Cup favorites

ST. LOUIS -- Blues-Blackhawks. It's enough to raise eyebrows in the I-55 corridor between the two cities. 

Add in the fact that when the puck drops for Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round series between the two division rivals at 7 p.m. today (FSN-plus, KY 98-FM), it will be the first time playoff hockey will affect these teams directly for the first time since the Blues (52-23-7 in the regular season) eliminated the Blackhawks (46-21-15) in five games 12 years ago.

"Now the playoffs start, the fun starts," said Blues' leading scorer Alexander Steen, who tallied 33 goals this season. "This is what we’ve been going for all year. It’s an exciting time."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (right) is expected to see a lot of
Chicago's Jonathan Toews during the teams' first round playoff series.

The Blues won three of five meetings between the two teams this season, but two of them came via shootout, and the Blackhawks won the past two meetings in Chicago, outscoring the Blues 8-2.

Now it comes down to a seven-game series, and two teams that have been dubbed Stanley Cup favorites -- and in the Hawks' case, it would be back-to-back titles -- one of these teams will be on the outside looking in by the end of the first round.

"There's going to be a lot of ups and downs in the series," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "We have to make sure that we take care of that and keep a level head as best as we can and realize that it's a seven-game series. We're playing a team that has some experience and they've been there and did it last year. We're going to have to stick with it."

Both teams have had injury issues down the stretch, but for the the Blackhawks, both Jonathan Toews (upper body) and Patrick Kane (lower body) have been ruled healthy and ready to go for Game 1. The Blues on the other hand, according to coach Ken Hitchcock, the lineup is "fluid" despite injured players prepping themselves in recent days for the opener tonight.

No matter who plays for the Blues tonight, they have to play their style of game but do it with puck possession in mind and trying to eliminate any easy real estate for the high-flying Hawks.

"There's not an easy matchup anywhere, so it is what it is," Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "To do what we want to do you have to go through a bunch of good teams. We've had some good games with them this year and when you play them you know what you’re going to get. So it will be a real good test right off the bat.

"I think we're OK. There's a certain way we have to play, obviously, and just lately maybe we’ve gotten away from that a little bit. The last two games against them weren't our best effort for sure. I think we just have to go back and remind ourselves what we did to have success and go from there."

The Blues face arguably the toughest challenge in the first round. The Blackhawks are the defending champs and have won a pair of Stanley Cup titles the past four seasons.

"They've got the knowledge," Hitchcock said. "Everybody else can talk about what it takes to win, they've got the knowledge. Everybody else can pretend they know what it takes, but they know. So our job is to learn from them, not them learn from us. The quicker we can learn, the better it's going to be for us. 

"We've just got to play and let our game get out there and get going and see what we've got and making what adjustments we need to make. You're going to get their 'A' game. They've been sitting on this thing for a month now, they've been gliding around for a month now, sitting out guys, resting guys."

With Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Andrew Shaw leading the way offensively, then throw in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook anchoring the defense that includes goalie Corey Crawford, Chicago is a team that can come at the opposition in waves. The Blues will see a different element in the postseason this year after getting more bruising teams like Los Angeles and San Jose the past two seasons.

"They've got an element and a skill that's probably at the top of the league," Blues captain David Backes said of the Blackhawks. "Their top six forwards could all be all-stars or Olympians every year. Their top four 'D' have all played in the Olympics. 

"When you talk about that sort of depth and ability, we're going to go have to play our blue-collar type of game against them and make them earn every inch of ice that they get. You've seen it time and time again when skill guys have to do that work against hard-nosed players when they're dialed in, it's a heck of a battle, it's fun to watch. The result can go either way and we're looking to have a great performance by four lines and six 'D' and a goaltender. We're going to win this thing as a team. It's not going to be one guy that carries us. We think that's one of our strengths that's going to pull us through."

Hitchcock agreed.

"When we get outside our play, we get beat," he said. "Winning in the playoffs is all about playing within yourself, and also in the system. When you start searching out body contact or you start thinking you can intimidate people with body contact, you're wrong. This is a team that we're going to play, if we think we're going to go out on a seek-and-destroy mission like both teams did with L.A. and us last year, this team will just laugh at you. They've been having people running at them for five years now and they know how to deal with it. We have to play the game the right way and hope for good results. Going out and thinking we're going to intimidate the Chicago Blackhawks is nuts. They've seen all of that before and they just play right through it."

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who began his coaching career in St. Louis in 1997, is concerned about the Blues' physical nature.

"Absolutely," Quenneville said. "When you look at the way they play and how they play and the consistency of that being a key part of their game. They’re a physical team, we know that, and we want to make sure we don't change how we play. 

"I think we look at the five games we played against them, I think we were fine in all the games. You don't want to not go where you have to be to be successful. And I think that's the key with our team. You can't forecast what's going to happen health-wise over the course of a long seven-game series, but when you play St. Louis, you can't be distracted about where you've got to go to be successful." 

The Blues feel they know their opponent but respect them nonetheless.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Kevin Shattenkirk (22) and the Blues host the rival Chicago Blackhawks
and Michal Handzus (26) beginning with Game 1 tonight. 

"They're a dangerous team, they've got some guys probably coming back in the lineup, too," Blues goalie Ryan Miller said of the Blackhawks. "They move the puck, they've got some swagger. 

"It's going to be up to us to do the things they don't like. For me, just compete, battle, make the reads, make the plays."

The series resumes at Scottrade Center for Game 2 Saturday at 2 p.m. before shifting to Chicago's United Center for Games 3 and 4, Monday at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday at 8:30 p.m.

"We play them enough," Steen said of the Blackhawks. "We know them and what they're about. They know what we're about. Should make for a good series, but it's not like we're going to get surprised by anything.

"We’ve had a lot of good battles with these guys. We know each other really well. It's going to be a fun series."

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