Friday, April 26, 2013

Blues to face rival Blackhawks with plenty at stake

Victory would ensure home ice in opening round of playoffs;
Oshie targeting playoff opener, Jackman questionable for Saturday

ST. LOUIS -- All the marbles will be on the table in Saturday's season finale when the Blues host the Chicago Blackhawks at Scottrade Center.

What's at stake? For the Blues (28-17-2), a victory would mean guaranteed home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and the fourth seed in the Western Conference. In that scenario, the Blues would play the winner of Saturday night's game between San Jose and Los Angeles, who face one another at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

The Blues could conceivably still get the fourth seed if they happen to only get one point against the Blackhawks, who played their home finale Friday night against the Calgary Flames and who are reportedly going to rest players and bring to St. Louis a lineup laced with American Hockey League call-ups. But in the case the Blues falter in overtime/shootout, they need the Sharks to beat the Kings in any fashion. A regulation loss against the Blackhawks would eliminate the Blues from finishing fourth.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (left) and the rest of the Blues will have plenty at stake on
Saturday night when they host the Chicago Blackhawks.
I don't think we have to be concerned about what they're doing," defenseman Jordan Leopold said of the Blackhawks. "It's more about what we're doing. We're in a position that if we come out and play our game and do the things we know that we're capable of, we're going to be able to get two points and that equals being in fourth place and having home-ice advantage. It's a great opportunity for us and I think all of us are ready and aware for that challenge. Whatever the lineup may be tomorrow for them, it's really insignificant for how we need to play and how we need to get those points."

The Blackhawks (36-6-5) have nothing to play for after wrapping up the Presidents' Trophy Wednesday night in Edmonton. They are expected to play Carter Hutton (who has never played an NHL game) in goal, along with a number of other bodies recalled from AHL Rockford.

"You don't worry about ... you always think about who you're playing, but you can't worry about who's out there," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "No matter what, the way they play, you're going to play a certain way. They've got a lot of dangerous guys. It's a game you look at, they're on a back-to-back and we're at home here. I think if we play the right way, we'll give ourselves a good chance."

It will be Chicago's third game in four nights, thus the reasoning for coach Joel Quenneville to rest some of his star players, who could very likely include Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, to name a few.

"Chicago, if they do that, they'll be the same way (as Calgary was Thursday)," forward Chris Porter said. "We've got to come out with the mindset we obviously need the two points and home ice. That's huge.

"The last month here in April, we've had a great month (11-3-0) and put ourselves in a great position. What better way than to play Chicago for home ice advantage."

There are so many obvious reasons for wanting home ice advantage, where the Blues have won five in a row and six of seven after an inauspicious beginning at Scottrade Center.

"I think the biggest thing strategically-wise is, if you go to a Game 7, it's at home," Leopold said. "I've played plenty of Game 7s on the road, plenty at home and it's definitely to your advantage to have it at your home city and have the crowd behind you and all that. There's less travel as well and that can take a toll on you, long flights, whatever it may be.

"You just want to put yourself in the best position you can and we've worked hard this last month to get where we are, and we have that opportunity in front of us. Hopefully we seize that moment."

Considering where the Blues -- who put themselves in this position with a 4-1 home victory Thursday night over the Flames -- were just a few short days ago after a dismal loss Sunday at Colorado, to be in the position of going for fourth is quite the coup.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Chris Porter (right) said they want the win and home ice
advantage. Beating Chicago Saturday ensures fourth in the West. 
"To be able to start at home would be a big thing if you look at the position we were in just a couple days ago," Bouwmeester said. "To have that opportunity is big. Everyone knows the importance and all that. You're playing a good team, too."

It's an important game," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "You move on after the game one way or another, but it's an important game. It's two good teams. Chicago is arguably the best team in a long time in the league. It's a good challenge. We're going to have to be at our best to win the hockey game, but I think it's a fun game to finish the season with. It's obviously more important for us than it is for them."

* NOTES -- The Blues will go with Brian Elliott in goal against the Blackhawks. ... Defenseman Barret Jackman was on the ice for Friday's optional skate and according to Hitchcock, the team will make a decision on his availability Saturday morning. It was previously thought that Jackman, who was injured Tuesday against the Avalanche blocking a shot midway through the second period, would be best held out until the playoffs. Kris Russell returned to the lineup Thursday against Calgary and would play Saturday again if Jackman were unavailable.

Also skating were in injured players Scott Nichol (lower-body soreness), Jamie Langenbrunner (hip) and T.J. Oshie (ankle), who had a surgical procedure 10 days ago. He's been sidelined since blocking a shot March 28 against the Kings.

"I feel good, feel really good," Oshie said after a lengthy skate Friday. "I'm getting stronger every day on the leg. It's very exciting getting out there. I haven't been to a real practice yet, but it's great being out there snapping around with the boys again."

Oshie, who said he feels like the playoff opener is a real possibility, was thought to be close last week after a practice, but an MRI disclosed a stress fracture. He had surgery April 16 and is back near 100 percent.

"It didn't feel as good as it can," Oshie said. "I was maybe lying to myself a little bit, but I wanted to get back, I wanted to play. ... When your team's losing a couple games, you want to get back and I wanted to get back out there.

"It was tough, but the most important thing for me is playoffs. Like I said then, I didn't want to get my hopes too high. I wanted to play. The MRI said different, so luckily we got that before I went out there."

Oshie, who has 20 points (13 assists) in 30 games, said the surgery has made a world of difference.

"Everything's a lot better," he said. "I think it was maybe three, four days after surgery that I was able to get my splint off, the doctors were pushing on it and it felt a lot better. I'm very excited with where I'm at right now. I've just got to keep getting better every day and not push it a little too far.

"I might need a couple shifts to get in there. Stepping right into playoff hockey's going to be tough. I know what it's like because we were there last year. I thought we played well there last year except for that last series. I'm going to be ready either way. I've just got to bring my energy. If I got that, I think I'll be alright."

The question is, where does Oshie slot in and who will he replace?

"I was telling a couple of the guys, and I said that last week, I don't know where I'm going to go," Oshie joked. "Hopefully there's some room for me. I'm really excited to get back out there with the guys. When you're hurt, you almost feel like you're on an island by yourself. I've got Langs, Scotty and some of the young guys with me. You want to be in that team atmosphere even if it's going through a couple meetings here and there."

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