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.

Tomas Jurco ready for 'fresh start' with Blackhawks

Tomas Jurco ready for 'fresh start' with Blackhawks

Tomas Jurco lingered near the end of the Blackhawks' practice on Saturday, watching as fellow Slovak/now-teammate Marian Hossa drew a few things up on the dry-erase board.

Having a few familiar countrymen's faces (Hossa and Richard Panik) in the room helps. But for Jurco, just getting a fresh start is a welcome sight.

Jurco skated on the third line with Marcus Kruger and Hossa, and it looks like he'll make his Blackhawks debut there when the team hosts St. Louis on Sunday night. Jurco spent the last few seasons with the Detroit Red Wings but couldn't find a steady place in the lineup. Now here, he's hoping to change his fortunes.

"I mean, it's been tough couple of years for me in Detroit, so I was talking to [general manager] Ken Holland and we were discussing some options. I wasn't progressing in the last year or so, so I think this is a great time to push my game to another level," Jurco said on Saturday. "Like I said, this is another fresh start for me and I'm very excited for it."

[MORE: Niklas Hjalmarsson out Sunday vs. Blues]

Jurco joins a Blackhawks team that is surging (winning eight of nine) these last few weeks of the season. He and Hossa played together in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, so there's some familiarity as well as friendship there.

General manager Stan Bowman said Friday night that, based on Jurco's skills and the Blackhawks' style of play, Jurco should fit in well.

"I think he's going to get better here," coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's going to get a little bit more comfortable with how we have to play, knowing that you want to go right through the puck and you want to pressure. Offensively I think he's got a chance to recapture some confidence. I think he moves well. I like his size. [It's] just getting a little more comfortable with our game and trusting his own instincts right off the bat."

It was time for a change for Jurco. Whether he blossoms like Panik, who came here from the Toronto Maple Leafs last season and is now putting up career numbers as part of the Blackhawks' top line, remains to be seen. It's an opportunity nonetheless, and Jurco is ready to take advantage of it. 

"It was a number of different reasons in Detroit it didn't work out for me. I wasn't playing much, so that's obviously tough. And when you don't play for a few weeks and you play a couple of games, it's very tough," Jurco said. "I'm very happy that I'm here and excited for tomorrow."

Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson out Sunday vs. Blues

Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson out Sunday vs. Blues

Niklas Hjalmarsson is day-to-day with an upper-body injury but he will not play on Sunday when the Blackhawks host the St. Louis Blues, coach Joel Quenneville said.

Hjalmarsson left with a little over eight minutes remaining in Thursday night's 6-3 victory over the Arizona Coyotes. He missed morning skate that day and, prior to the game, was seen wearing a wrap around his back. Whether or not that is the injury, however, is unknown. Quenneville said the Blackhawks will give Hjalmarsson time to regain full health, especially at this point of the season.

"I think he knows his body and he knows when he can fight through certain things. Giving him enough time to get back to where he's basically 100 percent is what we want," Quenneville said. "That's why he left the game last game. We want to make sure that when he comes back – you know, there's certain things you can fight through, and with him he can go through anything. Let's make sure at this time of the year that he recovers from this."

[RELATED: Nick Schmaltz gaining confidence, effectiveness with Blackhawks]

Quenneville said the Blackhawks will go with the six defensemen they currently have. The last time Hjalmarsson missed a game due to injury was late February/early March of 2012 (six games with an upper-body injury).

"He's a warrior, he gives you everything you want in a big game like tomorrow's. Certainly missed him in the last game," Quenneville said. "We haven't exposed too much not having Hammer out there in important shifts, but it's a good chance for other guys to get critical and important shifts, and hopefully that helps them in their games as well."

Briefly

- Jordin Tootoo also missed practice (illness).

- Corey Crawford will start vs. the Blues.