1. FATES IN HAND
Thursday's regular-season home finale against St. Louis presents a conundrum for the Blackhawks: win, and they likely seal a first-round fate of four or more games against the highly physical, highly motivated Blues. Lose, and they may instead face the Dallas Stars, who have at times skated circles around Chicago this season. Either way, the Blackhawks will see it as a chance to make a statement, to prove that their three-game win streak wasn't simply a team feasting on weaker, non-playoff opponents. St. Louis has not defeated Chicago in regulation yet this season, but their 6-5 overtime win on Nov. 4 capped off a stunning comeback from a 5-0 deficit, a feeling the Blackhawks would like to avoid after surviving a similar late surge on Sunday by Boston. Scott Darling has never faced the Blues in his career, and with Corey Crawford tentatively scheduled to return on Saturday in Columbus, this could be the backup netminder's final appearance before the playoffs.
2. DOUBLE SIX
Chicago's offense has woken up in the final week of the season, to the tune of 17 goals over their last three games, including two consecutive six-goal outings. Against Winnipeg and Boston, the Blackhawks' dynamic trio of Artem Anisimov, Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane accounted for eight of the 11 tallies, a total that includes Kane's second hat trick of the season on Sunday. On Tuesday against Arizona, the Blackhawks got major contributions from the top line of Jonathan Toews, Andrew Ladd and Richard Panik (filling in for the injured Marian Hossa). Panik opened the scoring just 5 minutes into the game, before Toews and Ladd combined for three goals in special-teams play.
"We’re going to score goals different ways," Toews said after being named First Star of the Game on Tuesday. "It’s a great feeling to have at this time of year, especially having gone through this little rough patch...where things weren’t going so well. I think we have the confidence and the patience to wait those moments out and just work towards getting our game back, so we’re seeing that right now."
3. ON THE MEND
Both squads are playing shorthanded at the moment, with a couple of big names missing on either side. The Blackhawks are halfway through Duncan Keith's six-game suspension and skated without Andrew Shaw (upper body) and Hossa (lower body) on Tuesday. During the game, Anisimov took a hard hit into the boards and could miss Friday's game as a precaution, although no formal announcement has been made. On Wednesday, Bryan Bickell was recalled from the Rockford IceHogs, where he's posted 31 points in 44 games this season. For St. Louis, goaltender Jake Allen and captain David Backes were ruled out for the remainder of the regular season with lower-body ailments, while rookie Robby Fabbri and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester have also missed a couple of weeks, adding to a long list of significant injuries that could have derailed the Blues' season. So it's unlikely that Thursday's rosters will the same configurations for a possible postseason matchup, but that shouldn't prevent both sides from bringing playoff-type intensity to the UC.
4. D ON O
The Blues love to get their defense involved in the offensive zone, and their two best blueliners over the last few seasons have been Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Pietrangelo, the fourth-overall pick in 2008, has been on a tear lately, collecting six points over his last five outings, including two straight multi-point nights; he ranks second among team defensemen with 35 points in 71 games this season. He also ranks sixth among NHL blueliners with 26:18 of ice time per game, which includes over 2 minutes on the power play and over 3 minutes on the penalty kill. Meanwhile, Shattenkirk tallied an assist on Monday to extend his point streak to four games, and he continues to lead team defensemen in goals (14), assists (28) and points. He's currently skating on the second pairing with young phenom Colton Parayko, who has 33 points in 77 games in his first NHL season while pacing blueliners in possession numbers (55.1 percentage of on-ice shots). While Pietrangelo is playing more of a shudown role this season, Shattenkirk's puck-moving abilities and Parayko's heavy shot makes them a pairing to watch out for whenever they're on the ice.
5. HIGH BROU
In his first season with the club, Blues forward Troy Brouwer has carved out a spot for himself on the top six while showcasing his typical hard-nosed style of play. The former Blackhawk spent four years with Washington before arriving in St. Louis as part of the T.J. Oshie trade. In 80 games, he's posted 39 points, part of a remarkably consistent run that's produced between 33-43 points in each of the last six campaigns, and Brouwer has enjoyed significant time on both special teams. The 30-year-old has been productive lately, tallying three goals and three assists in his last four tilts, and he has a goal and a helper in four games against his former club this season.
THE FINAL WORD
The Blues have won seven of their last eight due to depth scoring and exceptional goaltending, which allowed the Blues to set a franchise record with four straight shutouts from March 19-26. Both teams seem to be scoring at will these days; the Blues have 15 goals over their last three tilts, so Thursday's winner will likely be decided by a superior defensive effort. Chicago's power play has been humming, but they're running into the third-best PK in the NHL and a unit that's allowed just two goals—both in the same game—in their past eight outings, so establishing zone time and getting shots through to test the netminder will be crucial if they want to sustain their success. The Blackhawks want to continue establishing their possession game early and building a lead, but they've had issues with giving up momentum late in games, something they'll need to avoid, especially if Thursday's matchup turns out to be a first-round preview.