By LOU KORAC
CHICAGO -- Four games remain for the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks; the Nashville Predators have three. A whopping two points separate the two teams in the race for the Central Division crown.
Nashville (47-22-10) has 104 points after a 4-3 overtime loss at home to Dallas on Saturday. The Predators have three games remaining.
The Blues (48-23-7) have 103 points and the Blackhawks (48-24-6) have 102 points. The Blues control their their own destiny. Win out, and they win the Central Division but it won't be easy.
The Blues, who play the Blackhawks at 6:30 p.m. today (NBCSN, KYKY 98.1-FM), play Chicago twice, Winnipeg and Minnesota. All are teams currently in the playoffs or are on the cusp (Winnipeg) with one week left.
Tonight's matchup could go a long way in determining their fate. And they'll have to do it in a building that's been a house of horrors the past five seasons, where the Blues haven't won in regulation in 62 months.
After going through a light practice on Saturday with limited skaters, the Blues did not skate this morning in preparation for arguably the biggest regular season game in quite some time.
The Blues know puck management against Chicago will be key.
"It's more about us," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Saturday. "We play our best hockey when we're really smart through the neutral zone with the puck. When we're smart and strong through the neutral zone and we pay a healthy respect to all three lines on the ice, then we really play well and we can really build momentum. But if we're turning pucks over on those three lines, that's the transition that they feed off of. Even look at the last game (Chicago) played in Buffalo, two turnovers in the neutral zone, two in the back of the net, one creates a faceoff and creates a goal and the second one is the winning goal. They jump all over your mistakes; that's what good teams do. On those three lines, we'd like to play as error-free as possible.
"When we play well, it's an obviously highly competitive game. I think it's the same as them. Our game is how much time can we spend in the offensive zone and control the puck and how much little time can we give them on transition and rush attacks. How we manage the puck ... when we manage it really well against Chicago, we play really well and when we are careless and knocked off the puck easily, then it's advantage Chicago."
The Blues, who have won two in a row without top two scorers Vladimir Tarasenko (71 points) and Alexander Steen (62), understand the importance of the game but also for future implications.
"It's a big game. We play them in two of the last four games. They're a potential first round matchup," captain David Backes said of the Blackhawks. "We've started to hit a good stride in the last two games; we need to continue that momentum and assert ourselves that we're a force to be reckoned with going into the playoffs.
"I don't know that we need to build it up more than it is. It's a regular season game that's in the final steps before we get into the playoffs, (and) we know we lost our last six last year going into the playoffs. We've got two in a row under our belt going on the good side and we've got four left. Playing good hockey at this time lets you stride into the playoffs rather than stumble like we did last year. That's our goal right now and we've got four tough games against three teams that we can be playing in the first round."
Tarasenko and Steen are on the trip but not expected to play. Tarasenko did not skate and hasn't since being injured against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday, but Steen did skate and is closer to returning. He's doubtful for Sunday.
Others have stepped up in their place. Jaden Schwartz recorded his second career hat trick and of the season in a 7-5 victory Friday against the Stars, while Patrik Berglund has found himself offensively with four goals and six points in the past three games.
"We've had our two leading scorers out the last few games and we've scored 11 goals," Backes said. "Those are the phenomenons that you guys can pick apart. Different guys stepping up. 'Bergy' scoring some big goals. 'Schwartzy' scoring big goals. Other guys chipping in around them. It's been good and we're going to have different heroes every night. We've got plenty of guys capable."
Making the proper subtle changes to the lineup has helped alleviate the vacancy of 133 points.
"I think the (Paul) Stastny line has given us exactly what we thought they'd give us," Hitchcock said. "Some good zone time; they've given us obviously some scoring, which has been nice. Backes' line has really played the grind game, which has helped us a lot. It's different; it's really different. These are significant changes we were forced to make, and our team has looked different. In some ways, it's looked a little bit like the team from three years ago looked, so that's significant. We're looking forward to those other guys getting back in the lineup."
Chicago will be without Patrick Kane (broken clavicle) for the 18th consecutive game but they've gone 12-4-1 in his absence. Captain Jonathan Toews has had something to do with it. He has 17 points in 17 games since Kane departed the lineup.
"Well, it's a different dynamic obviously but No. 19 (Toews) has obviously been playing really well for them and other guys have stepped up," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "They've got a lot of firepower whether (Kane) is in there or not, so we've got to make sure that we're ready."
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After sitting out Friday's victory, defenseman Barret Jackman is expected to return to the lineup tonight.
It will be the 800th NHL game for the Blues' first round pick in 1999.
Jackman, who passed Brett Hull and Brian Sutter on the all-time games played list, is second to Bernie Federko (927).
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The Blues' probable lineup (UPDATED):
Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-T.J. Oshie
Dmitrij Jaskin-David Backes-Patrik Berglund
Olli Jokinen-Jori Lehtera-Ty Rattie
Steve Ott-Marcel Goc-Ryan Reaves
Kevin Shattenkirk-Alex Pietrangelo
Jay Bouwmeester-Zbynek Michalek
Barret Jackman-Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Allen will start in goal. Brian Elliott will be the backup.
Healthy scratches are Chris Porter, Carl Gunnarsson and Chris Butler. Alexander Steen (lower body) and Vladimir Tarasenko (lower body) remain day-to-day; neither are expected to play tonight.
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The Blackhawks' projected lineup:
Kris Versteeg-Jonathan Toews-Marian Hossa
Patrick Sharp-Brad Richards-Antoine Vermette
Bryan Bickell-Andrew Shaw-Brandon Saad
Andrew Desjardins-Marcus Kruger-Teuvo Teravainen
Johnny Oduya-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Duncan Keith-Michal Rozsival
Kimmo Timonen-Brent Seabrook
Corey Crawford will start in goal. Scott Darling will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include David Rundblad, Kyle Baun and Michael Paliotta. Patrick Kane (clavicle), Daniel Carcillo (upper body) and Joakim Nordstrom (upper body) are out with injuries.