Blackhawks-Blues rivalry 'as good as it's ever been'

675970.png

Blackhawks-Blues rivalry 'as good as it's ever been'

PROGRAMMING ALERT:
Click to watch the Blackhawks take on the Blues in a LIVE stream on NBCSports.com!

Pat Foley remembers Chicagos battles against the St. Louis Blues.

The Blackhawks longtime broadcaster smiles when he remembers the intensity in those games, be it regular season or playoffs. From the Dave Mansons and Mike Pelusos to the Tony Twists and Kelly Chases, from the angst among both teams fans to former Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan inadvertently locking himself in the Checkerdome office after an angry rant, it was one hell of a rivalry.

And as far as Foley is concerned, its getting like that again.

The Blues and Blackhawks rivalry is heating up, and the stakes will be high when the two squads meet on Sunday morning in Chicago as part of Hockey Day in America. The Blues and Blackhawks are fourth and sixth in the West, respectively, and the fight for prime a playoff spot just adds to the rekindled rivalry.

Its one thing to have the rivalry. Its another to have good teams in them, Foley said on Saturday. You dont want those guys to finish ahead of you and get home ice. Obviously that just puts a little bit more frosting on the cake in terms of how meaningful it is and how much those guys want it. In this sport, who wants it, how bad do you want it and what price are you willing to pay to go get it? Thats wonderful to see it come back.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, whos been behind each bench through plenty of these Chicago-St. Louis games, agrees the intensity is rising again.

The rivalry grew and right now its probably as good as its ever been, he said. They play hard, play simple, play a strong team game and theyre a physical team. I dont think were comfortable that were finally home (on Sunday). Lets make sure we use the crowd for our advantage and lets be excited about importance of the game.

The Blackhawks have been back among the leagues elite for a few seasons now. Theyre not the physical squad they once were, instead leading with their speed and skill that has scored 186 goals, second best in the West this season.

Meanwhile, St. Louis latest renaissance began the November day general manager Doug Armstrong named Ken Hitchcock coach. The Blues, who have one playoff appearance since the lockout, are now among the Wests best. Theyve done it with defense, allowing a league-low 114 goals this season (tied with the New York Rangers) and getting 12 of their 36 victories by shutout.

St. Louis has done a great job all year, especially since Hitchcock took over. They play hard and play a good team game, Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. Everything weve talked about over the last month, and what weve done more so the last couple nights, is play together, play as a unit and play a good team game. We have to do that against St. Louis.

The recent Blues-Blackhawks games dont feature the fisticuffs that were so synonymous with the old-school matchups. Every now and then you see them, but its now more the Blackhawks skill vs. the Blues sandpaper. But the intensity never really left; and with the two jockeying for position among the Wests top eight, its starting to rise again.

Its not yet back to where it was when it was in the Checkerdome and the (old Chicago) Stadium. You knew it was great entertainment and it was going to be intense on a Tuesday night in November. You couldnt wait to get there, Foley said. But I think were heading in that direction again, which is awesome.

Johnny Oduya finds a new home in Eastern Conference

Johnny Oduya finds a new home in Eastern Conference

Johnny Oduya is headed to the Eastern Conference.

The 35-year-old defenseman signed a one-year, $1 million deal with the Ottawa Senators. The contract could be worth up to $1.25 million with incentives.

Oduya, who the Blackhawks re-acquired prior to the trade deadline last season from the Dallas Stars, finished with two goals and seven assists in 52 games between the two teams.

It comes to no one's surprise that the Blackhawks didn't re-sign the veteran defenseman.

After being swept in the first round of the playoffs last season by the Nashville Predators, Stan Bowman has made it clear the Blackhawks are headed in a different direction, and their offseason has been plenty of busy so far. Headline deals included trading Oduya's linemate Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for 24-year-old defenseman Connor Murphy and re-acquiring Brandon Saad from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Artemi Panarin.

Oduya heads to a Senators team which got ousted in the Eastern Conference Final in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Ryan Hartman likes how he feels approaching this season, his sophomore stint with the Blackhawks. Scoring 19 goals, earning the trust of the coaches and gaining a good deal of responsibility in your rookie season will do that for you.

“It’s feeling like I should be there,” he said on Friday. “Maybe sometimes when you first get called up, you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m here,’ and you’re still thinking about that. Now it’s just feeling like hockey for me and how it’s always supposed to be.”

More confidence is there for Hartman, as well as a few other young Blackhawks players who cut their teeth last year. That’s good, because those guys, having shown what they can do, will likely get more responsibility this season.

That includes Nick Schmaltz, who will either get first crack at the second-line left wing vacancy or help the Blackhawks at center, which he says is his preference “but I’m fine with wing, too.” Schmaltz struggled to start last season but following a few games in Rockford, he returned a more confident player. He played well with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik on the top line and filled in for Artem Anisimov later in the season.

“I was nervous coming in. I didn’t know if it was going to work and I gained confidence game by game and felt more comfortable,” he said. “I was making the plays I’m used to making.”

When Tanner Kero was recalled right before Christmas, it was because of Anisimov’s injury. But outside of a bye-week return to Rockford Kero turned that call-up into a full-time gig, giving the Blackhawks another bottom-six center option and earning himself a two-year contract. With Marcus Kruger and Dennis Rasmussen no longer here, Kero is expected to have that third- or fourth-line center role; thanks to experience gained last season, Kero’s more comfortable now.

“It was great,” he said. “Going in, you’re not sure. It’s day-to-day to start and you just want to prove yourself and get those opportunities, get trust and more ice time. As the season went on I got more confident, trusted my game more. Going into the season I’m going in with a lot more confidence.”

John Hayden felt fairly comfortable when he joined the Blackhawks last spring thanks to his senior season at Yale – “I needed that fourth year as a player and a person,” he said. Still, getting in some NHL games, getting a feel for the pro level and gaining familiarity with the Blackhawks will benefit him in September.

“It’s important considering it’s my first training camp and I’ll know a lot of the guys, which helps a ton. From an on-ice standpoint, I have that experience,” he said. “I’ve spent a ton of time addressing areas in need of improvement all in all I’m excited for training camp.”

But Hartman and others don’t see it as weight on their shoulders.

“I don’t think there’s pressure,” Hartman said. “When you look back you want to see improvements every year, you want to see yourself becoming a better hockey player. That’s something I want to do, I want to be able to look back and say I had a good career my first year but each year I got progressively better. That’s where my mindset is at.”

There’s more opportunity for the young players but Hayden says that’s true of everyone.

“I don’t really analyze opportunity. Regardless of the team, it’s going to be competitive,” he said. “Every summer you have to have a hard-working mindset and do what you can to show up in the fall in the best shape of your life.”

The Blackhawks’ young players have all set the bar at a certain level and will be expected to improve. It takes confidence to take that next step. Thanks to experience gained last season, they’re feeling good about taking it.