1. ARCH RIVALS
No team has been ravaged with injuries to key players quite like the St. Louis Blues this season. Alexander Steen, who is second on the team in scoring, hasn’t played since suffering an upper-body injury on Feb. 20. Fellow forwards Jaden Schwartz and Patrik Berglund are back now, but both have missed significant time this season: Schwartz has played in just 18 games, while Berglund has been in action for 27. Paul Stastny missed a long stretch early in the year as well. The injury bug has bitten their blue line as well. Kevin Shattenkirk is back now after missing 10 games, while a knee injury caused Alex Pietrangelo to be placed on injured reserve in early February, although he’s been back for three games, scoring one goal and tallying two assists. In spite of all the injuries, the Blues have surged up the standings lately and are just two points behind the Blackhawks and Stars atop the Central Division, making Wednesday’s matchup a crucial one.
2. VLAD TO THE BONE
Vladimir Tarasenko, who has played in all but two games this season, has been fortunate to avoid spending time among the Blues’ walking wounded. The 24-year-old All-Star has tallied 30 goals to go along with 25 assists for a team-high 55 points. He’s taken a team-high 240 shots, sixth-most in the league, connecting at a 12.5 percent clip. Twelve of his 30 goals have come on the power play, which trails only Alex Ovechkin (16), Patrick Kane (15) and Jamie Benn (14) in the NHL. Tarasenko, who was teammates with Blackhawks rookie Artemi Panarin in the KHL as well as on Russia’s gold-medal World Juniors team in 2011, has just one point in his last five games, though he does have 10 points in 13 career games against the Blackhawks, including three goals and an assist in three matchups this season.
3. NET WORTH
Goaltender Brian Elliott is the latest banged-up St. Louis player. He was placed on long-term injured reserve on Feb. 23 and is expected to miss four weeks with a lower-body injury. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has platooned Elliott and Jake Allen over the last two seasons, but now the net belongs to Allen, who recently returned from an injury of his own. The 25-year-old has won each of his last three starts, stopping 102 of 109 shots in the process. Allen has a 21-13-3 record with a .922 save percentage and 2.26 goals-against average this season. If he’s able to shut down the Blackhawks on Wednesday, Allen would match his career high of 22 wins, set last year. He’s played well against Chicago over his career, posting a .932 SV% and 2.10 GAA in five outings.
4. BUSINESS IN FRONT
There was one evident similarity on the Blackhawks’ final two goals in Sunday’s 4-1 win over a Detroit: a strong presence in front of the net. “In today’s game, if goalies see pucks, you’re not scoring,” Head Coach Joel Quenneville said after the game. On Chicago’s third goal, Artem Anisimov stood in front of Jimmy Howard and redirected Artemi Panarin’s one-timer into the top corner of the net. Later, Jonathan Toews redirected Andrew Desjardins’ shot from the slot to seal the victory. Anisimov’s goal was Chicago’s second power-play tally of the night, and the Blackhawks now lead the NHL with a 24.1 power-play percentage. Between better net-front presence on the power play and several shooting threats on both units, the power play is now in better shape than it has been in years.
5. ON THE MEND
Coach Q is hopeful that Marian Hossa will return to the lineup in St. Louis. Hossa hasn’t played since Feb. 13, when he left the game against the Anaheim Ducks early with a lower-body injury. At the time of the injury, Hossa had 10 goals and 18 assists on a career-low shooting percentage of 6.1. Even though his scoring numbers are low, his two-way game and experience is irreplaceable, and he’ll slide right back into his usual spot on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and now Andrew Ladd; his presence should also help stabilize the penalty kill, which has slipped in recent weeks. Hossa’s return should move Andrew Shaw down to the third or fourth line, making the Blackhawks a deeper team offensively. They’ll become even deeper when Marcus Kruger returns, which is expected to happen prior to the playoffs.
THE FINAL WORD
Should St. Louis head to the penalty box on Wednesday, there will be a battle between two of the top special teams units in the NHL. The St. Louis penalty kill ranks No. 1 in the league at 86.6 percent, while the Blackhawks’ power play has scored at least a goal in four straight games and six of their last 12 opportunities. Whichever top-ranked unit prevails could be the difference in what should be a tight-checking, emotional game. The Blues have made the Central Division a three-team race after winning three in a row and seven of their last 10, and this matchup must be considered a “four-point game” for both sides. With just 15 games remaining for both teams, these two points are incredibly valuable as the Blues and Blackhawks jockey for playoff positioning—and potentially home ice advantage in the postseason.