Chicago Blackhawks

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

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

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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.

Five Things from Blackhawks-Blue Jackets: Shots and slashes

Five Things from Blackhawks-Blue Jackets: Shots and slashes

It’s preseason: you don’t need a lot of build-up. Let’s just delve right in, shall we?

1. Lots of shots, but…

The same Joonas Korpisalo that the Blackhawks’ youngsters scored five goals against on Tuesday was on top of his game on Saturday. The Blackhawks peppered him with 54 shots but only two got through, and the second was a 6-on-4 power-play goal in the final two minutes.

“I thought we could have gotten a little more traffic in front of him," Nick Schmaltz said. "I thought we were playing along the outside. I mean we had some great looks. He made some big saves. Some nights you get the bounces and some nights you don’t.”

2. Bérubé’s Blackhawks debut.

Jean-François Bérubé had a tough sequence early in the second period, when he gave up two goals in a 28-second span. This was against a Columbus team that didn’t send many of their top players. He also didn’t see a ton of action in this one; the Blue Jackets fired just 21 shots his way.

3. Growing pains.

Alex DeBrincat had his up and down moments on Saturday night. His turnover led to Columbus’ first goal, he took a slashing penalty and he fought the puck quite a bit. You still saw glimpses of that skill, though, especially with his quick release. Hey, he’s a 19-year-old guy getting his first taste of the NHL. Nights like this are going to happen.

“We all make mistakes,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “You gotta be safe in certain areas and you learn from that.”

4. Slash-o-meter.

Four more were called on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if that number starts dwindling sooner rather than later, though, because the edict has apparently changed already. Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported earlier on Saturday that the league told officials to ease up on slashing and faceoff violations. But we all figure that’s going to happen once the regular season begins anyway, right?

5. Notre Dame bound.

The destination is familiar but the Blackhawks threw it into their second week of camp this season. It’ll be bonding time for the Blackhawks, who will send a smaller group for several practices there this week. Quenneville figures it’ll be a productive time. “We’ll get some bonding in, play golf together, have a nice outing, couple of road games and a nice campus.”

Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow

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USA TODAY

Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow

Nick Schmaltz seemed to be everywhere the puck was on Saturday night. Great pursuit of the puck, great passes to Patrick Kane or Alex DeBrincat and an all-around confidence that’s becoming more apparent by the game.

So has coach Joel Quenneville seen what he’s needed to from Schmaltz at second-line center?

“And more.”

It’s been a pretty impressive showing for Schmaltz this month. The 21-year-old has played in all three of the Blackhawks’ preseason games and keeps getting better in each one. The uncertainty Schmaltz understandably showed as a rookie is gone; the NHL game no longer feels uncomfortable.

“I feel like the game’s slowing down for me, just seeing plays,” Schmaltz said. “I know what I’m doing with the puck before I get it. It feels good and just trying to get better every day.”

Schmaltz and his fellow second liners didn’t connect for goals in the Blackhawks 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The three combined for 12 of the Blackhawks’ 54 shots on goal – Kane and DeBrincat each had five – and the chemistry continues to build between the three.

Jonathan Toews talked on Saturday morning of how much more relaxed Schmaltz looks with the puck now, and that was evident again later that night.

“He’s really starting to get comfortable physically at this level,” Toews said. “He thinks the game so well, puts himself in good spots, much like Kaner where he can skate with the puck and use his speed. He has his head up so he backs guys off. Those two were making great plays tonight and Brinksy was fitting in well. They couldn’t buy a goal but Schmaltzy’s getting better and better, and you’re’ seeing that calm poise that he has really come out the more he gets comfortable.”

Schmaltz was likely getting a second-line audition in some capacity this fall; the original thought was at left wing in the wake of Artemi Panarin’s trade. But Schmaltz has always felt at his best at center. He’s showing that. And more.

“It’s always fun to play no matter if it’s preseason or regular season," he said. "I’m always happy to play, especially when you’re playing with great players. I feel like I’m more comfortable in the middle, able to use my speed a little bit more, create more offense that way.

"I think it’s going well. Wherever I end up, I’ll be happy.”