Blues, Blackhawks ready for showdown;
Allen to get start; Steen skates, doubtful for Sunday
CHICAGO -- What more could a hockey fan, especially those in St. Louis and Chicago, ask for?
With four regular season games remaining, both the Blues and Blackhawks will be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs again. That's a foregone conclusion. But with each team neck-and-neck in the Central Division standings (the Blues are 48-23-7; good for 103 points, and the Blackhawks 48-24-6; good for 102 points) with plenty to prove.
What's at stake when the teams collide on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on NBCSN and KYKY 98.1-FM? Well, how about first place in the Central Division? Or how about home ice advantage? Perhaps when it's all said and done at the end of the week, even the top seed in the Western Conference or even the Presidents' Trophy?
There's no shortage of storylines when the cities linked together by Interstate-55 square off. They'll do so again Thursday at Scottrade Center.
"If you would have told us this is the way it was going to be in training camp, you'd take it every year," Blue captain David Backes said. "We're right where we want to be, feeling the way we need to feel and we're at that point of the season where we want to be playing our best hockey and I think our last two games, we've played pretty darn well. A few stumbles on the back-to-back, tired legs, tired minds, not making right decisions, but those things are going to happen. We showed a lot of character staying in that game (Friday, a 7-5 victory at Dallas after downing Calgary 4-1 at home Thursday) and staying together. Penalty kill's playing well and we've found ways. That's what we need to do this time of the year."
Added defenseman Alex Pietrangelo: "It's amazing ... I mean, really in any sport, you play all these guys, and it always comes down to the last week or the last game. This year is no different, but it gives us something to play for. It keeps us engaged."
There's not a player that will step on the ice Sunday night that will need any sort of motivation to face the other. If there is, then something is definitely not right.
"I guess the standings just kind of add to the rivalry," Blues right wing T.J. Oshie said. "I don't think it's hard for anyone on either team to get up for these games, but there's definitely a little more excitement, a little bit more edge that you can expect tomorrow with where both teams are at.
"Obviously it's going to be both teams coming off of some good-feeling wins (Friday after Chicago scored twice in the final two minutes to beat Buffalo 4-3). Anytime you can come from behind, you always get a good feeling when you win the game. You can't really hype up the Blues-Blackhawks game much more than what the rivalry already has for it. I think both teams are going to be coming off of highs and ready to go."
Both teams will enter the game missing star players. The Blues have won two in a row without Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko, the team points leaders who both are nursing lower-body injuries and are day-to-day. The Blackhawks have been playing without right wing Patrick Kane, who's out with a broken left clavicle.
"We're without two significant players," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "It's a good challenge for us. It's a good challenge from an evaluation standpoint. There's some players that quite frankly haven't played in this series from our team that need this experience. Whatever we do tomorrow, we're going to come out with more players with more experience for later on if we happen to meet up with each other at some time."
Chicago has gone 12-4-1 since Kane went down and have improvised since the NHL's leading scorer at the time sustained his injury.
"They did what they had to do to keep getting points," Hitchcock said of the Blackhawks. "They hunkered down defensively; you get nothing unless you really earn it, they give you nothing. There's no free scoring chances, there's no free ice. We've got to earn everything. They've focused on checking and they've had obviously one of the lowest goals-against average in the league since then, if not the lowest. They've gotten significant scoring from deep and down the lineup a little bit and done a heck of a job making the similar changes that we have to make right now.
"We're built a completely different way right now with those two guys (Steen and Tarasenko) out of the lineup. We've had to make changes on the run and we've done a heck of a job here the last two games making changes on the run."
Something the Blues must shake if they are to have any success against the Blackhawks? Win in this building.
Since their last regulation win on Feb. 3, 2010, the Blues have lost 14 of 16 games, including all three in last season's Stanley Cup Playoffs, and both wins have come via shootout.
"Not this building specifically, but playing on the road and playing a simple, hard road game," Backes said. "Just getting the job done, finding a way, keeping it close and finding a way in the third period. That's been our recipe all year and it's worked.
"We can't change it because it's the Blackhawks or it's the United Center because there's 21,000 people here. There's plenty of energy in the building, but we can feed off that as well and play our style of game and have success."
Oh, and that last regulation win by the Blues here, their goalie was Chris Mason. For Chicago, it was Cristobal Huet.
Chicago has taken two of three games from the Blues this season, including the last one, 4-2 on Feb. 8 at Scottrade Center, which happened to be the last time these teams played.
"I couldn't tell you what happened last time we played them," Oshie said of the Blackhawks. "I do know just from past experiences from playing them so much, their system, their style, their personnels are instilled in our minds. Whatever their lineup is tomorrow, we can to a guy probably tell you how each line's going to play, how the 'D' is going to play. We know they're going to have good goaltending.
"You're excited. It's always a big challenge because of the experience and the caliber team they are, so you're always up to the challenge and excited to try to go out there and get two points."
* Allen gets the nod -- Jake Allen, who has been playing some of his best hockey for the Blues in the recent stretch, will get the start in net Sunday over Brian Elliott, who had an up-and-down game despite making 27 saves in the 7-5 win against the Stars on Friday.
With the game meaning so much in the standings and with Hitchcock recently saying that Elliott would get the bulk and more important games down the stretch, it was somewhat of a surprise to see Hitchcock go with Allen.
"His turn," Hitchcock said when asked what led to the decision with Allen. "We've got four games in six days; we've got to play them both. ... We want to win it, but he needs the experience as do other people that are not all starry-eyed if we happen to play these guys down the road."
It looks like Hitchcock wants to test Allen in a pressure-cooker type of game and see how he reacts before the postseason begins.
"Not just him; I want to see other people in pressure cookers," Hitchcock said. Except for (Antoine) Vermette, they've got all of their guys that have been in this series before. We've got four or five that have not been in this series before. We don't need any surprises if this happens to be where it's at down the line."
Have the Blues gone sour somewhat where Elliott's concerned, especially after a couple tough goals against on Friday? The coach said no.
"He'd like to have a couple of them back, but how many saves did he make when the game was on the line in the third," Hitchcock asked. "He made five 10-bellers in the third period alone.
"Yeah, he'd like to have some back, but when we needed him, he stepped up big time in the third. We knew what we were getting into when we got in that game and neither team could put the brakes on each other. I thought his true test came in the third period and he answered the bell."
* Steen skates -- Steen, who has missed the past three games following a collision with Columbus defenseman Cody Goloubef one week ago Saturday, skated on Saturday in what turned out to be an optional at the United Center.
Hitchcock wouldn't officially rule Steen, who has 62 points behind Tarasenko's 71, out of Sunday's game. He instead chose the guessing-game route.
"I'm not going to comment who's in and who's out," Hitchcock said. "This is the first time he was able to participate with a group of players, so that's significant."
It's likely that Steen will miss a fourth straight game.
"... This is his third skate but very very aggressive today," Hitchcock said. "Obviously this is as accelerated as he is and then we'll see in the next few days where he's at and how he feels."
Backes, Steen's linemate for much of the season, said the Blues will be better when he returns.
"He's a battler, he's a huge part of our team," Backes said of Steen. "That being said, when he's ready, he'll be back and we'll add another feather in our cap for someone that the opposition has to worry about. Until then, I think they've done a good job of different guys stepping up, increased responsibility, increased need for them to help us in different ways. He's quarterbacking power plays, he's penalty killing, he's carrying the play 5-on-5. Now that we've had other guys step up, we need to keep that level when we roll some of these guys that re high-end skill back into the lineup."
Tarasenko, who is also on the trip, did not skate and is definitely out for Sunday. Tarasenko is likely to miss the rest of the regular season and the Blues are hopeful he's going to be ready for the playoffs.
* Blackhawks ready for challenge -- Chicago players are as anxious as the Blues to have the puck dropped in what has turned into a heated rivalry.
With eight points up for grabs for each team over the final four regular season games, the matchups are magnified.
"Every time we play these guys they're fun, challenging games and now that it's toward the end of the season it's that much more important getting those points," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "They have a physical group and they're a good skating team. It's going to be tough."
Chicago captain Jonathan Toews agreed.
"There's history there and anytime you throw in a heated playoff series comparable to the one we had last year it always adds to it and now we're so close to potentially playing each other in the first round again, these two games are going to mean a lot and be a pretty good preview if that is the case," Toews said. "Part of (the Blues') game that we know they've tried for a while is their physicality and we'll stick to what we know works for us. Sometimes you're going to be stuck in your own zone and guys will be flying around trying to hit you and you just have to stick with it and know that if you keep skating and keep the puck and play your game you have a lot of talent and a lot of ability. Those are the things we tend to focus on."
With Toews scoring twice against the Sabres on Friday to up his point total to a team-leading 66 in 78 games, the Blues should be mindful of the Blackhawks captain. And they are.
Toews has 17 points in 17 games since Kane's injury.
"Yeah, we're aware of the way he's been playing," Pietrangelo said of Toews. "Obviously since Kane's been out, he's been playing extremely well. He's an elite player, he always has been. We're got to make sure we're ready for him and the other guys up front taking over for the loss of Kane."
* No panic -- The Blues struck quick and led by two goals early in the second period on Friday, but it all came undone in a hurry -- as the majority of the goals came in a flurry -- with four Stars goals.
Dallas erased that 3-1 deficit and took a 5-3 lead in typical fashion. It's who the Stars are and what they've been about this season. They strike quick, they strike often and they look to do it with a knockout-type blow.
But the Blues withstood the barrage of punches before scoring four unanswered of their own, including three in the third period, to win the hockey game.
"I don't know. It's hard," defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. "Definitely we don't want to give up five goals a night. We're not going to win many nights like that. We need to be better. I thought we made some tired plays on certain plays, but we stuck with it and dug ourselves out of a big hole. Credit to the guys. We never gave up. It's good for us."
The Blues called their timeout after the fifth Dallas goal. There was no yelling; it was simply regroup time.
"We just had to start competing again," Hitchcock said. "Three goals in a row we got the puck pulled off the boards on us. We weren’t competing at all on the boards, so they were just pulling the puck off us and jammed it right down our throats. We had to start playing again.
"We just felt like if we could keep it in the offensive zone, we were going to do fine and that's exactly what happened. We scored a lot of goals today extending shifts in the offensive zone and if we could get back to that, we were going to be fine. But we couldn't get beat off the boards like we were doing in the second period."
Schwartz's goal with 25.5 seconds left in the second seemed to fuel the fire.
"Obviously it's important for us to score there, but we knew we had to play better," said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who scored the game-winner midway through the third. This is the type of character we have in this dressing room. Even though we're down however many goals, we're going to find a way to battle through that going into the third. We showed some real character and some great leadership by Backes and some of the guys up front that led to us having the success.
"We got a little bit comfortable there. You score those two big goals, but they're playing for a playoff spot here. We knew that they were going to come back. It wasn't a good wakeup call for us. I think halfway through that second period, we turned the switch back on and did some good things."
And those good things translated into the seventh come-from-behind victory when trailing after two periods when the Blues outscored the Stars 3-0.
"(The Stars) have a lot of firepower, a team that scores a lot," said Schwartz, who netted his second hat trick of the season and of his career. "We just had some timely goals, big plays by some good players and we needed that. This is a huge two points for us. It was a big game for both teams. They had that momentum in the second, but we just stuck with it believing in ourselves."