ST. LOUIS -- It's not just another game when the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks drop the puck tonight at Scottrade Center.
Not a chance.
The Blues (38-20-9) are two points behind the second-place Blackhawks (41-21-5) and three behind the first-place Dallas Stars in the race for the Central Division crown.
A win by the injury-depleted Blues, who continue to defy the odds by placing themselves in what many would have considered a two-team race by teams that have stayed relatively healthy, puts them one point behind Dallas and into a tie with the Blackhawks.
Call it the typical four-point game, which is exactly what it is.
"We're trying to catch them; they're truing to put distance between us," said Blues right wing Troy Brouwer, who won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010. "They're big points. If you can't get the wins against certain teams when you have the opportunities, it puts you behind, which means you've got to win two games now. For us, we're coming into this treating as if it's a big game, trying to get into first place, trying to catch them and make sure that we can put ourselves in a good position where we can try and capture the division.
"It's pretty chippy. There's been a lot of turnover in certain guys over the past couple years, but the core of both teams are still in tact. For that reason, the rivalry and that competitiveness has rubbed off on everybody else. Some of the games we've had have been tight games. There's not a whole lot of fighting, but there is a lot of animosity between the two teams. It makes for exciting games."
And if anyone feels it's JUST a game ... think again.
"I think we all know the answer to that," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "Even if we were the bottom two teams in the league, it wouldn't be another regular season game for us. They're a team that's been playing great all season. They're obviously at the top of our division right now, and they're a team we're chasing, so tomorrow really is a four-point game. It'll be a huge swing if we can get a regulation win, but obviously any sort of win against them will be big and in the chase that we have going on right now.
"It's been a tough year for us the way we've had guys go down, but I think for the last two or three years, we've talked about how deep this team is and now we're really starting to see it. That goes back two or three years why we're having so much success is because younger guys have been kind of getting ready for these moments and we've been grooming them for these moments. When you have big, key players go down, we're asking guys to step up and play bigger roles, but we're not asking them to score as many goals as Alex Steen; we just want them to play their best game and I think that's the most important part. Everyone's playing within themselves, but they're playing their best hockey."
For the Blues, it's the start of three games in four nights against three of the top teams in the Western Conference. They host red-hot Anaheim (11-0-1 in 12 and 18-1-2 the past 21 games) on Friday, then play at Dallas on Saturday.
"It's Chicago and then it's Anaheim and then it's Dallas," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "This week is a real testing ground for us to see where our game's at, where we're competitively-wise, where we're at team play-wise. I think it's four good games starting with the Minnesota game (Sunday). We passed that test; now we're onto the next one. Probably expect a loaded-up team coming tomorrow and we'll get a good feel for where we're at. I don't think anybody knows their team. Nobody's seen their team play full. We'll be the first team to get a look at it with all the changes they made on trade deadline and we'll get a good read on ourselves, too.
"We don't even talk about winning the division; it's about one day at a time playing well. That's all the focus is right now. The point totals will be determined and so will your schedule. We have a difficult schedule right now, but it eases off for days off towards the end, too. I think us and Chicago probably have the most difficult schedules of anybody right now. It's all about getting enough points to get in and then your standing is where it's at at the end of the day, but I don't think any of us look further ahead than 24 hours. I think the injuries have done that to us. We don't play with a read view mirror, which I think is a blessing for the players. They deserve a lot of credit because they move on very quickly. There's been some really emotional injuries, some really emotionally draining injuries that we've recovered the next day from, which I think is really a feather in everybody's cap because these have been difficult challenges and I think the players have passed a lot of those players because of it."
But a win today (7 p.m. on NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM), it will show a lot for the Blues against the top-tiered team in the league the past six seasons with three Stanley Cup titles.
"I'm curious to see how we play against these guys tonight," Hitchcock said. "Then we'll have the coaching moments tomorrow and then move forward as quick as we can. I like the way we started. Minny's a good team, they were really playing well. We played awful well against them for two and a half periods and I want to have guys continue to play with that same pulse that we played with against Minny and against Ottawa. I liked our energy and I liked our spirit.
"(Injuries) forced us into a position where we had to play with no memory. Our players talked about it, everybody talks about it as "next-man-up" but we just played with no memory. We learned to survive early and then you just become numb after a while. That's what's happened here. We lost a lot of three-tool guys where they played both ends of special teams but we've been able to adjust and survive. I think the biggest thing for us is it hasn't been a Rembrandt at times, but we found ways to get points against difficult opponents and I think our confidence is growing where we feel like whoever's in the lineup, we can play competitively."
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There was no official announcement from the NHL as of early Wednesday afternoon, but the Blues put out a release late Wednesday afternoon for fans to be in their seats for a "special announcement" prior to puck drop tonight that will confirm that the 2017 Winter Classic will have the Blues hosting the Blackhawks on Jan. 2 at Busch Stadium.
It was reported here (http://bit.ly/1RU3uQR) on Feb. 20 that the Blues and Blackhawks would be the teams announced as the matchup for the Winter Classic and that the announcement would come when the two teams played tonight on Wednesday Night Rivalry Game of the Week, which made sense for the NHL to make a splash during the marquee game of the night.
"We've been hoping that now for a few years," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "Busch Stadium's an unbelievable ballpark. A lot of baseball fans in here. It's going to be a pretty special place to play. Good climate. Two good teams could go at it. It would be fun to watch."
Brouwer, who helped beat the Blackhawks in the 2015 Winter Classic as a member of the Washington Capitals and who played with the Blackhawks against the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field in 2009, said it would be great for St. Louis.
"I've played in two of them and they're a lot of fun," Brouwer said. "It's a big spectacle, there's a lot to the game that may take away from the actual game a little bit with the whole event of it. The NHL and the teams that I've been on have done a phenomenal job promoting the game, making good hype for the game, hype for the cities, then the games themselves are always a lot of fun to play in. You bring your families in, you get to play outdoors. I know players love to do them and it's good to see that hopefully they'll expand to see that every team gets to do an outdoor game.
"If that's what the matchup is going to be, than yeah. Anytime you can add a little more interest to the game, whether it's rivalry games or the best teams in the NHL, it's always going to draw more fans, more notoriety, and sell the game even more.
"Yes, so I have fond memories of the Winter Classic. Even the one I played in Chicago was a lot of fun. We didn't win that game, but they're always a good time. You get to have your family in and my experience last year was a lot of fun."
So much is being made of the Blackhawks playing in a fifth outdoor game (they've played in two Stadium Series games, including one on Feb. 21 at Minnesota).
"They're a team that's won three Stanley Cups in the last five or six years," Brouwer said. "They've got a lot of star players on their roster they're a team that has a huge following throughout the NHL, in the fan base, why not? It's a way to get more people to watch the game and sell the game and have more interest in the game, then us as players are fine with it."
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The Blues will have their top-ranked penalty kill unit (86.6 percent, which is tied for No. 1 in the NHL with the New York Islanders) against the Blackhawks, who are a scorching 50 percent (6-for-12 the past four games) and No. 1 in the NHL overall at 24.1 percent.
"Look at their power play; it's 50 percent here in the last little while," Hitchcock said. "It's incredible. Our PK is going to get a test today and we'll see how we measure up against that stuff.
"I think what's helped us is (Kyle) Brodziak and (Scottie) Upshall have had great chemistry together. Not just on PK, but they're chipping in offensively a little bit here now. They're contributing in ways that put the other team on their heels. We got good minutes from that line the last game and hopefully we get continued good minutes now. I like the energy that they're providing, but more importantly, I like the execution and good play that they're playing with."
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Left wing Alexander Steen (upper body) and goalie Brian Elliott (lower body) skated with teammates for a second straight day Wednesday.
Hitchcock said on Tuesday that both had been on the ice for 4-5 days before the public could see them.
Elliott, who is on long-term injured reserve, will miss at least five more games, and Steen is eligible to return whenever he feels ready but said Tuesday it's likely right on the timeframe of being reevaluated in four weeks.
"I think it's more me frustrated. I feel like it's not progressing. I want to take two steps at a time," Steen said. "It's a slow process, but mentally trying to stay in it, stay positive and do what I can and right now, that's conditioning. A lot of rides, trying to get on the ice and keep my hip flexors and groins active and ready so that when the upper body is ready, I'll be good."
Elliott said: "It's never fun. When you're kind of playing and on a roll you want to keep playing. It's tough when you go down like that, but you've got to think of it positively and get stronger. When you come back, you get a little more rested and get ready for the stretch run.
You just want to be available when you can be, working up to it and not pushing too hard but pushing it just enough. When the date is coming off, you want to be ready just to jump back in."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer
Patrik Berglund-David Backes-Dmitrij Jaskin
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Jake Allen will start in goal. Anders Nilsson will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Magnus Paajarvi and Robert Bortuzzo. Alexander Steen (upper body), Brian Elliott (lower body) and Steve Ott (hamstring) are on injured reserve.
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The Blackhawks' projected lineup:
Andrew Ladd-Jonathan Toews-Andrew Shaw
Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane
Andrew Desjardins-Teuvo Teravainen-Tomas Fleischmann
Brandon Mashinter-Dennis Rasmussen-Dale Weise
Duncan Keith-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Erik Gustafsson-Brent Seabrook
Trevor van Riemsdyk-Michal Rozsival
Corey Crawford will start in goal. Scott Darling will be the backup.
Christian Ehrhoff and Richard Panik are healthy scratches. Marian Hossa (lower body) and Marcus Kruger (upper body) are on injured reserve.