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The Verdict: Not much separating Blackhawks, Blues ahead of another playoff series

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

Not since 1970 have the Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues sneered at each other from different divisions, a recipe for border battles that fall well short of being neighborly. Expect no changes when these rivals commence their 12th Stanley Cup Playoffs series on Wednesday night.

When the Blues joined the National Hockey League in 1967, they were separated at birth from established franchises. But the Blackhawks switched to the all-expansion section three years later, and since then, under various appellations (West, Smythe, Norris, Central), colliding with the Blues during the second season has become a ritual.

For a spell, the Minnesota North Stars were the group Chicago fans loved to hate every spring, until the North Stars went away. But the Blues remain evergreen obstacles for the Blackhawks, who have faced St. Louis in the playoffs more often than all but two Original Six standbys, the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings.

The defending champion Blackhawks, chasing a fourth Stanley Cup in seven years, had another banner season. Patrick Kane, with 106 points, became the first U.S.-born player to win the NHL scoring title, a feat that places him on the top shelf of Hart Trophy candidates as most valuable player. Artemi Panarin bagged 30 goals and is the presumptive winner of the Calder Trophy as best rookie.

Corey Crawford was a bastion of stability in goal through thick and thin. Joel Quenneville ascended to the second-winningest coaching record in league history, 801 and counting. And Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman enhanced his reputation as Mr. February, adding worthy reinforcements at the trade deadline. But now, all that and $3 will get you a tram ride at the Gateway Arch.

The Blackhawks fell to the Blues, 2-1 in overtime, at the United Center a week ago. The visiting Blues also triumphed in November, 6-5, via comeback effort. In between, the Blackhawks won at the Scottrade Center, 4-2, at home, 2-0, and lost in a road shootout, 3-2. Little to choose there, or in the standings, where the Blues amassed 107 points to 104 for the Blackhawks.

The Blues thought their time for a first Stanley Cup was ripe in 2014, especially after two taut first-round playoff victories against the then-defending champions in St. Louis: 4-3 in triple overtime, 4-3 in one overtime. Late in that third period of Game 2, Brent Seabrook charged David Backes, drawing a major, a game misconduct and a three-game suspension. The Blackhawks were down 0-2 and depleted.

But when the 2014 series moved to the United Center, Crawford stopped all 34 shots in Game 3, a 2-0 conquest. Bryan Bickell tied Game 4 deep into regulation, and Kane won it in overtime, 4-3. Then Jonathan Toews—who else?—stung the Blues and their 19,796 home fans with an overtime winner in Game 5. Game 6 in Chicago was no contest. The Blackhawks romped to their fourth straight victory, 5-1. The haunted Blues, built for the playoffs, were shattered. The Blackhawks, always lurking in the rearview mirror, had prevailed again.

“Character,” praised St. Louis Head Coach Ken Hitchcock. “Everybody has skill. That team has resolve.”

Another noteworthy playoff development: All seven teams based in Canada have missed this year’s playoffs. That has not befallen our friends to the north in 46 years, when only the Canadiens and Maple Leafs represented their hockey-mad nation in the 12-team league.

The Blackhawks played a starring role on a wild climactic Sunday of the 1969-70 regular season. They were seeking to complete a worst-to-first finish from the previous winter, but were tied atop the East Division with the Boston Bruins as the Canadiens visited the Stadium, trying to secure the fourth and last playoff berth.

The New York Rangers, at home that afternoon, waxed Detroit 9-5. For the Canadiens to beat out New York, they had to either win in Chicago or score five goals to achieve the next tie-breaker.

When the Blackhawks roared to a 5-2 lead, Montreal Coach Claude Ruel abandoned hopes of a victory. Midway through the third period, he pulled goalie Rogie Vachon for a sixth attacker in a desperate attempt to score three more times.

Instead, the Blackhawks potted five empty-net goals before a raucous sellout crowd to romp 10-2 and secure first place over the Bruins, who whipped the eliminated Maple Leafs but recorded five fewer wins than the Blackhawks.

The Canadiens, who had qualified for the playoffs each year since 1948, were out. And so was Canada.

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