The Blues and Blackhawks have orchestrated many memorable battles over the past dozen years, but the matchups were missing something.
They weren’t the playoffs.
That will change when the Scottrade Center ice shows off its new coat of postseason paint tonight, when the bitter rivals meet in a playoff series for the first time since the 2002 Western Conference quarterfinals.
The Blues dropped Game 1 in that series, but then won four straight behind goaltender Brent Johnson, who pitched three consecutive shutouts.
“It’s been a long time,” said Blues defenseman Barret Jackman, who at the time was a member of the team’s ‘Black Aces,’ a group of extra practice players. “It’s been a good rivalry in the regular season with these guys and I expect nothing less going into the playoffs against them.”
The Blues and Blackhawks have played 69 regular-season games since squaring off in their last postseason matchup — a 5-3 Blues’ victory on April 25, 2002. The record in the series since then has been nearly spot-even, with Blues going 28-29-11-1 against the ‘Hawks in that stretch.
There’s been animosity, hatred and even blood drawn in those 69 meetings. But perhaps nothing in the last 12 years will compare to what we see beginning tonight.
“It’s going to be great,” said Blues captain David Backes, who has played in 44 regular-season games against Chicago, tied for the most he’s faced any NHL opponent. “The playoffs, in general, amp it up a notch. Our building seems to be nuts, their building is always crazy, and then the game on the ice, it’s going to be hard and physical ... it’s going to be a war out there.
“There is not a lot of surprises from one team to the next. Little details, little plays are going to be the difference in the games. From the details I saw today in our practice, our guys are hungry and ready to make a statement.”
After back-to-back playoff losses to the LA Kings the past two years, the Blues have been preparing all season to make a statement in the playoffs.
On pace to perhaps win the Presidents’ Trophy as recently as a few weeks ago, and play one of the wild-card qualifiers in the NHL’s new playoff format, it didn’t appear that statement would need to come in the first round. But in stumbling to the finish line, losing their last six games, the Blues steered themselves into a series against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The club’s 111 points was only four more than Chicago, and although the Blues won the first three games in the season series (two in shootouts), the Blackhawks handled them twice in March, altering the momentum.
Had the Blues played a wild-card club in the first round, and won, they would’ve had to face the Chicago-Colorado winner in the second round anyway. But they seemed to have done themselves no favors by opening against the Blackhawks.
“First of all, what does it matter?” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “If you play them in the first round or the second round, there’s a good chance you’ve got to go through them, and you might as well find out what you’ve got right away.
“For me, I look at it like, ‘If you expect to win in the West, you might as well starting beating the best right off the bat.’ For me, if you’re sitting there picking your opponent, it doesn’t work that way. And for us, who we play isn’t as relevant as who’s in our lineup and how we’re going to play based on personnel.
“It’s like if you’re settled in your lineup, and you’re settled in everything, you can just kind of look around. We’re not looking around at anybody. We’re just looking at ourselves right now and trying to get ready. So that’s more the focus for us.”
The Blues saw a couple of more injured bodies return to the ice Wednesday in Backes and Vladimir Sobotka. They joined Brenden Morrow and Vladimir Tarasenko, who has made a fast recovery and could be available as soon as Game 1. He took a shift on a regular line Wednesday’s practice and participated on the power play.
T.J. Oshie did not skate Wednesday, but Tuesday he said that he was ready to play and may have just taken a rest day. That leaves possibly only Patrik Berglund as the lone player on the shelf when the series starts.
So the Blues could be healthier now than they potentially would be in the second round, and that could be an advantage in meeting Chicago now.
“We know that going in with a lot of these injuries healed might be a good thing,” Jackman said. “I think everybody (in the West) is pretty much on a level playing field. (But) you’ve got to beat Chicago at some point and hopefully that’s in the first round.”
First round? Second round? Either way, it’s the playoffs.
“It’s going to be very emotional,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in this series and we have to make sure we take care of that ... realize that it’s a seven-game series.
“Now we’re here and this is what we’ve all been waiting for. We’re a completely different team than we were on Sunday, after the game against Detroit. Everyone is ready to play.”