CHICAGO - Regular season games don’t get much bigger than this.
With four games remaining for both teams, the Blues and Blackhawks are separated by just one point in the standings. First round playoff matchups, home-ice advantage, maybe even a division title - all of those things could be significantly impacted by two Blues / Blackhawks games over the next five days.
It begins tonight at United Center, where the Blues will wrap up the road portion of the 2014-15 season with a 6:30 p.m. contest (NBCSN, Y98 FM).
Players don’t need to be reminded about how big these games are. They already know.
“It should be another big, tense game. It always is when you play these guys,” said Jaden Schwartz, who scored his second career hat trick in Friday’s 7-5 win in Dallas. “You get up for the games, the fans are always into it and they’re always exciting games to be part of, especially this time of year. We play them twice, and they’re big points…there should be nothing held back in these games.”
“Against Chicago, it’s always a big game,” said Patrik Berglund, who has six points (four goals, two assists) in his last four games. “We’re just going to prepare like we always do, try to go out there, play our game and get two points.”
The rivalry, which hasn’t seen a game since Feb. 8, will look a bit different tonight. The Blues are without forwards Alexander Steen (lower-body) and Vladimir Tarasenko (lower-body), while the Blackhawks are without Patrick Kane (collarbone).
“(Chicago) did what they had to do to keep getting points,” Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said. “They hunkered down defensively. Unless you really earn it, they give you nothing. There are no free scoring chances, there’s no free ice. You’ve got to earn everything.
“They’ve done a heck of a job making the similar changes that we have to make right now,” he added. “We’re built a completely different way right now with (Steen and Tarasenko) out of the lineup. We’ve had to make changes on the run and we’ve done a heck of job these last two games.
Tonight’s game will be the 29th all-time meeting between the clubs. The Blues won the first matchup this season (3-2 on Oct. 25) but have lost the last two to the Blackhawks.
“Our game is how much time can we spend in the offensive zone and control the puck,” Hitchcock said. “How little time can we give them on transition and rush attacks? How we manage the puck…when we manage it really well against Chicago, we play really well. When we play careless and are knocked off the puck easily, then it’s advantage Chicago.”
After tonight, the Blues are hoping it’s advantage St. Louis in the standings.
Steen skated with the team for the first time Saturday during an optional practice at United Center. Steen, who has been out of the lineup since being injured March 28 vs. Columbus, had skated on his own twice before joining the team Saturday.
Hitchcock said Steen rejoining the club was “significant” progress.
“(He was) very, very aggressive today,” Hitchcock said. “This is as accelerated as he’s been and we’ll see in the next few days where he’s at and how he feels.”
BACK TO JAKE
Jake Allen will be between the pipes tonight.
“It’s his turn,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve got four games left in six days, we’ve got to play (both goalies). I’m not even sure to be honest with you if (Jake’s) played here (in Chicago). He needs the experience as do other people so that we’re not all starry-eyed if we happen to play these guys some time down the road.”
In his last outing (Thursday vs. Calgary), Allen won his 20th game of the season. In the calendar year, Allen has won nine of 12 starts.
Barret Jackman’s next game will be the 800th of his NHL career. This season, Jackman has passed Brett Hull and Brian Sutter on the team’s all-time games played list. Jackman has played his entire career with the Blues and trails only Bernie Federko, who played in 927 games.
Schwartz’s hat trick Friday in Dallas was the seventh by a Blue this season, which is the team’s most since 1993-94 when the club had nine.