CHICAGO -- The only way things could get any tighter in the Central Division is if the Chicago Blackhawks beat the St. Louis Blues in overtime or a shootout at United Center on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN).
Should that scenario play out, the top three teams in the division – the Blackhawks, Blues and Nashville Predators – each would have 104 points with three games remaining in the regular season. The final week will determine a lot in the Central heading into the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It’s amazing how this has played out the last part of the season here, where there hasn’t been any separation, hasn’t been any clarity,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said after the morning skate. “Usually some of these races are for playoff spots or positioning, but it says a lot about our division, knowing that teams are all tied at the top. At the end of the day, we could have 90 points across the board [in the division], which is pretty unusual.”
Considering their outlook just a few weeks ago, seemingly locked into third place, the Blackhawks are thrilled by what’s happened. Chicago not only has a chance to gain home-ice advantage in the Western Conference First Round, but it can earn another banner with a division championship.
The Blackhawks don’t have any games left against the Predators, but there are two left against the Blues. Chicago lost its first game against St. Louis this season, but has won the past two. After defeating the Blues in the first round of the playoffs last spring, the rivalry has intensified from a level that was already pretty high.
"They’re huge, especially this time of year,” Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw said of games against the Blues. “These ones get amped up more than usual, and this close to the playoffs it’s even better. It’s close to the playoffs, and teams are trying to climb the standings, so it should be a good battle tonight.”
St. Louis held an optional practice Saturday in Chicago and didn’t have a morning skate Sunday.
Forward Alexander Steen, who’s missed the past three games with a lower-body injury, skated with with teammates in practice for the first time since he was sidelined. Hitchcock was non-committal about his status for Sunday, but it sounded like he might not be ready until next week.
Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, also out with a lower-body injury, hasn’t resumed skating yet and won’t play. St. Louis will start goalie Jake Allen, and Corey Crawford will start for the Blackhawks.
Here are the projected lineups:
Jaden Schwartz – Paul Stastny – T.J. Oshie
Dmitrij Jaskin – David Backes – Patrik Berglund
Olli Jokinen – Jori Lehtera – Ty Rattie
Steve Ott – Marcel Goc – Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester – Alex Pietrangelo
Zbynek Michalek – Kevin Shattenkirk
Barret Jackman – Robert Bortuzzo
Scratched: Carl Gunnarsson, Chris Butler, Chris Porter
Injured: Vladimir Tarasenko (lower body), Alexander Steen (lower body)
Kris Versteeg – Jonathan Toews – Marian Hossa
Patrick Sharp – Brad Richards – Antoine Vermette
Bryan Bickell – Andrew Shaw – Brandon Saad
Andrew Desjardins – Marcus Kruger – Teuvo Teravainen
Johnny Oduya – Niklas Hjalmarsson
Duncan Keith – Michal Rozsival
Kimmo Timonen – Brent Seabrook
Scratched: David Rundblad, Kyle Baun, Michael Paliotta
Injured: Patrick Kane (fractured left clavicle), Daniel Carcillo (upper body), Joakim Nordstrom (upper body)
Status report: Rozsival will re-enter the lineup for the Blackhawks, replacing Rundblad. Rozsival was as a healthy scratch Friday in Buffalo after committing a bad turnover that led to a goal Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks. … Jackman will return to the lineup for the Blues after being scratched Friday in Dallas. … Kruger did not skate but will play. ... Quenneville hasn’t said when recently signed rookies Baun and Paliotta will make their debuts.
Who’s hot: The Blues’ top line of Schwartz, Stastny and Oshie has combined for 10 points in the past two games, including five goals. Schwartz, who had a hat trick against the Dallas Stars on Friday, has scored four of them.