The fact the Chicago Blackhawks are still chasing the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues in the Central Division doesn't seem as alarming as it did three weeks ago because they've found their stride and are playing their best hockey of the still-young season.
The Blackhawks return home Wednesday for NBCSN's Rivalry Night game against the Blues (8 p.m. ET) for the first time since beating the Dallas Stars 6-2 on Nov. 16. They have won three straight, six of seven, and eight of 10 since losing six of nine games from Oct. 23-Nov. 7.
The Blackhawks, propelled by the win against Dallas, won five of six games during their annual "Circus Trip." They closed the trip with back-to-back 4-1 wins against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings this past weekend.
"We're much better," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said during a phone interview Tuesday. "We've got something to build off. We're heading in the right direction. The past road trip or seven games I'd say they were strong games discounting one game in Vancouver. There's a lot of good things going on right now, but I don't think it's anything we should be too excited about. We feel we still have to get better."
The Blues may not be winning in the same dominating fashion as the Blackhawks, who have outscored opponents 29-11 in past seven games, but they also are finding ways to get two points.
St. Louis has won two in a row, although it needed extra time to pick up each win. The Blues are 4-0-1 in their past five games.
Here are five things to watch in the game Wednesday between the Central Division rivals:
1. Brodeur in blue as a Blue
Unless Jake Allen falters, goalie Martin Brodeur's debut in a Blues uniform will have to wait until Thursday or Saturday, but it will still be an odd sight when he skates onto the ice for warm-ups and sits on the bench as Allen's backup against Chicago.
"That will be one of the stranger things I've ever seen," Quenneville said of Brodeur in a Blues uniform. "That one will give me a double take."
Brodeur has spent his entire career until now with the New Jersey Devils, going back to when he was drafted in 1991 and made his NHL debut on March 26, 1992 against the Boston Bruins.
He signed a one-year, bonus-laden contract worth $700,000 with the Blues on Tuesday after agreeing to join them on a tryout basis last week. The NHL's all-time leader in wins, among several other categories, is 12 victories shy of 700 for his career.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Brodeur should expect to start either Thursday against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena or Saturday against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.
2. Allen's next big chance
If Brodeur plays Wednesday it'll only mean Allen was injured or the Blackhawks knocked him out of the game.
"Be careful what you wish for," Quenneville said.
Allen was elevated to No. 1 status in St. Louis when Brian Elliott went out with a lower-body injury last week against the Ottawa Senators. Now he has arguably the best goalie in the history of the NHL breathing down his neck with no guarantees he'll stave him off.
Allen, though, has done everything the Blues have asked of him and predicted he could do so far this season.
He is 8-2-1 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. He won back-to-back starts against the Edmonton Oilers and Minnesota Wild this past Friday and Saturday after losing to the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in a shootout in relief of Elliott on Nov. 25.
Allen is 3-0-1 with nine goals allowed in his past four appearances.
3. Similar opportunity for Raanta
Goalie - CHI
GAA: 2.03 | Sv%: .933
An off-ice injury to Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford means Antti Raanta will get a chance to play in an NHL game for the first time since Oct. 25, when he made 28 saves in a 3-2 loss to the Blues at Scottrade Center.
Raanta made one start with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League at a time when Scott Darling came up from Rockford and played well in place of Crawford.
Raanta made 33 saves in a 3-2 win against the Texas Stars on Nov. 16 and was recalled the next day. Quenneville said Raanta was supposed to start Nov. 22 at the Edmonton Oilers, but he was sick and couldn't play.
Quenneville likely needs to see Raanta play well in order to feel confident that he can give him more starts to rest Crawford, but he didn't want to put any extra pressure on the Finnish goalie.
"We feel confident he's going to get the job done and he's going to be predictable, give us a chance to win," Quenneville said. "That's how we see it. I don't want to put any more pressure on him than that. I think organizationally we feel we're much deeper in the goaltending department than we've ever been, but certainly we don't want to put the onus or pressure on one game and saying it's a do-or-die situation."
4. Chicago's red-hot second line
Blackhawks center Brad Richards has been a point-per-game player in the past seven games. He's the third most prolific scorer on his line in that span.
Richards, Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg enter the game Wednesday with 30 points on 11 goals and 19 assists since they were united seven games ago.
Kane has five goals and seven assists for 12 points since joining Richards and Versteeg on a line. Versteeg has three goals and eight assists for 11 points. Richards has three goals, all in the past two games, and four assists for seven points.
Chicago is 6-1-0 since Quenneville put that line together.
"Individually they can all handle the puck, but collectively they're staying on pucks, working well, and they're starting to get some predictability of where each other are," Quenneville said. "Some of the plays and movement away from the puck is really starting to come together."
5. Blues seeking production from key players
What was such a productive line for the Blues is only two-thirds full now that coach Ken Hitchcock has moved Jaden Schwartz away from Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera in what appears to be an attempt to get some other players going too.
The Blues do not want to become a one-line team, but with Lehtera, Schwartz and Tarasenko together for 11 games from Nov. 6-28 they were inching closer to that.
Lehtera, Schwartz and Tarasenko combined for 13 goals and 36 points in that stretch while the other 12 forwards Hitchcock used totaled 16 goals and 34 points. The Blues would prefer to spread the scoring wealth around rather than get more than 50 percent of their forward production from one line.
So Hitchcock bumped Schwartz to a line with Paul Stastny and T.J. Oshie at practice Tuesday. The idea is likely to use Schwartz, a forechecking, aggressive forward to get Stastny going. Stastny has seven points in 16 games, including three points in 11 games since returning from an injury.
Alexander Steen is back on a line with Lehtera and Tarasenko. He played with them earlier this season.
Backes, who has four goals and five points in the past 11 games, is on the wing on a line with Patrik Berglund and Steve Ott. Berglund has two points in the past 11 games and five points this season.
The Blues mix and match lines frequently, however, and the Backes-Stastny-Oshie line that had also been clicking of late could find itself back together at some point Wednesday.