Sunday, April 10, 2016

Blues-Blackhawks ... why not?

Central Division rivals to clash in opening round of Stanley Cup Playoffs

ST. LOUIS -- Blues and Blackhawks. Enough said.

The two Central Division rivals will renew their I-55 Stanley Cup Playoff series for the second time in three seasons in the first round of the Western Conference.

It wasn't the Blues' choice to face the Blackhawks, who eliminated the Blues in six games after St. Louis won Games 1 and 2, but after the Blues lost their regular season finale 5-1 to the Washington Capitals, it still would have been a moot point because the Dallas Stars rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Nashville Predators 3-2, thus taking the division title and No. 1 seed in the West.
(St. Louis Blues)

So in the matchup of No. 2 vs. No. 3, it's the Blues and Blackhawks, The Sequel. Both teams -- like 2014 -- surpassed 100 points and somebody will undeservedly exit after someone wins four of the next seven.

So it'll be the Blues' task of attempting to eliminate the franchise that's won three of the past six Stanley Cup titles.

"Might as well start at the top," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They're the only team in the league, quite frankly, with the knowledge of what it takes. So we get first crack at them. What we're going to have to have No. 1 is our best players are going to have to be our best players in this series. Our best players are going to have to outplay their best players and that's going to have to be No. 1 for me. That's a big challenge and I think a lot of our guys are looking forward to that."

The Blues finished with 107 points, the Hawks 103. All five regular season games were tight, they were intense with enough drama to cut through with a knife.

Let the games begin.

"It'll be good ... good series," left wing Alexander Steen said. "It's going to be intense games, like they always are. We're dying to get this going.

"... It brings out that rivalry. I think you see it in our regular season games all the time. There's been a lot of good battles, a lot of intense games. This won't be any different."

If the Blues showed any disappointment with their loss to end the season Saturday, think again.

"Here we go. Play all year for this," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "Put yourself in this position to get to this point and get ready for this week.

"We know what it is. That's our rival. It's been like that for a few years now. Obviously a couple of years ago, a big playoff series there. It's always a fun building to play in and I'm sure they're saying the same thing about us."

The Blues did their best to finish first in the Central, winning 14 of their last 18 games. But Dallas was 12-3-2 in its final 17 games to fend off St. Louis.

"I think if you looked at the big picture, it was probably going to happen," defenseman Jay Boumweester said of a Blues-Blackhawks series. "We made a good run at it at the end, won a whole bunch of games, but Dallas sort of did the same thing. We're very familiar with them. 

"Bottom line is you probably have to go through them to get to where you want to go. So, they're a good challenge, always are, but I think if you X out tonight, I think the way we ended the season, we've been going pretty good. We should feel pretty good about ourselves. We know them and they'll be confident with themselves, too. The games are always good. It'll be a good series."

The Blues won three of the five regular season meetings, albeit all needed overtime or a shootout. Nobody dominated the other.

The Blues won two of three in Chicago, including the famous 6-5 OT winner on a goal by Vladimir Tarasenko dubbed the 'Roar Bacon' game, one in which the Blues rallied from a 5-2 first-period deficit, and most recently, a 2-1 OT win on Tarasenko's goal last Thursday. Chicago won 2-0 on Jan. 24 before the All-Star break, a game in which both teams were spent and played the most games in the league.

The teams split a pair of games at Scottrade Center, with Chicago winning 4-2 on Nov. 14 and the Blues winning a 3-2 shootout on March 9, the night it was announced that the two teams will meet in the 2017 Winter Classic at Busch Stadium.

"I think there's some games you throw out the window," Hitchcock said. "We certainly throw out the last game in Chicago for both teams, I don't think that's the way either team is going to play. I think for us there's a couple games we can take from and I know there's one game they can take from for sure. I think both teams are more fixated in their own game and just playing it as well as they can.  But I think each team has a game or two from the series they can really build on and look at that game and say, 'That's the way we have to play to beat this team.'"

With Chicago taking it to the distance three of the past six seasons, the Blues, who have exited the playoffs in the first round each of the past three seasons, want to get to where Chicago has been.

So to be the best, take down the best.

"I think everyone in our division looks at the Blackhawks as the team you have to beat to move on, whether it's the first, the second round," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "For us to get a chance now to take them on in the first round, it's going to be pretty special. It's going to be a great series. For those of us who were here a couple years ago, we remember how emotional it was, and we have to start getting ready for that on Monday, and it's going to be fun. We're all looking forward to that matchup."

The Blues feel confident that they'll have all healthy bodies aside from Steve Ott, who's dealing with colitis, when Game 1 opens likely on Wednesday. It hasn't been said often this season, if at all.

"I don't even think we've played with a full lineup once this year," Pietrangelo said. "It's pretty amazing to come out with the amount of points that we did and still put ourselves in this position. Hopefully for Game 1, everyone's ready to go."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alexander Steen (20) will be seeing a lot of Patrick Kane (left) of the
Blackhawks in their upcoming playoff series.

Steen added: "It'll be good. Guys are starting to get ready. I think we'll be completely healthy when we go into Game 1 here. Our lineup will look good."

Blues-Blackhawks ... drop the puck.

"If that doesn't get us up, then we've got some issues," Shattenkirk said. "Guys are really looking forward to that challenge. We have to be ready because they're the Blackhawks. They've been the best team the last six years. We have to be ready for that because they're seasoned and they're a team we want to get through in the first round."

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