The St. Louis Blues are a pretty happy bunch. Easy to understand, really, considering where they’re sitting in the Western Conference. And on the cusp of clinching a playoff berth, the Blues say their success has been a culmination of everything coming together this season.
The Blues can clinch a playoff spot with a victory of any fashion tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks have their own agenda: they’re still trying to find their consistency again and, if they can’t catch St. Louis, at least claim second in the division and home ice against the Colorado Avalanche.
The Blues are a stunning 20-0-2 against the division this season, a stellar mark for a squad that needed to win its final home game last season to clinch home ice in the first round. So what’s worked for the Blues? Depth? Goaltending? Scoring? Defense? Special teams?
“It’s a collection of things,” said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. “Our maturity as a team has been one thing and we’ve been able to use it in our favor this year. We’ve gone through some hard times the last few years. We’ve learned the right way to play in the regular season and how important it is to carry into the playoffs. We’ve executed that up to this point.”
Entering tonight’s game, the Blues lead the Western Conference with 101 points, four ahead of second-place Anaheim and third-place San Jose. The Blackhawks are fifth with 93 points, same total as fourth-place Colorado, their likely first-round opponent. As for the game, it’s always entertaining between these two, a benchmark contest that each club can use to judge where it is.
“Both teams feel comfortable they’ll get into the playoffs, so the focus is more matchups and evaluations and see what part of your game needs worked on,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “I like playing against Joel (Quenneville’s) teams because it gives you a great working environment the next 48 hours on things you need to address. I’m sure Joel feels the same way; you get a true evaluation of your own team.”
Blues forward Brenden Morrow said, inconsistent or not, the Blackhawks are always dangerous.
“It’s probably still the most explosive team,” he said. “They have someone on every line. They’re opportunistic, so one mistake and there’s an odd-numbered rush the other way. You have to limit the grade-A scoring chances.”
While the Blues have stymied the Blackhawks all season, they’re counting on another tussle with them tonight. The Blackhawks have been frustrated with inconsistency lately and it reared its head again in their late-overtime loss to Philadelphia. Hitchcock said it sounded like the Blackhawks’ minds were on tonight’s game on Tuesday — “you could see it in quotes by the players that they were somewhere else and looking forward to tonight’s game, just like we are.” It’s understandable. It’s a big one for both, especially with the Blackhawks trying to find their game again. Shattenkirk said the Blues have to be careful not to let them.
“Last year they were at the top of the pack for the entire year, for the most part. This year it’s a little different situation. A team like that, when they’re backed into a corner, can be dangerous,” he said. “We don’t want to be the team that jump-starts their resurgence going into the playoffs. We have to focus on that tonight.”