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Blackhawks wary of Blues' skill players

Defending champs know St. Louis more than hard-hitting team

by Brian Hedger / Correspondent

CHICAGO -- The St. Louis Blues still have the physical presence they used against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs two seasons ago.

But the Blackhawks know the Blues will bring more than hard hits and physical play when they open their Western Conference First Round series with Game 1 at Scottrade Center on Wednesday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CSN-CH, FS-MW, SN360, TVA Sports).

Chicago eliminated St. Louis in six games during a first-round series in 2014, but the Blues have added high-end skill to their lineup, which makes defending them even tougher.

"They have a number of players who can make plays," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said after practice Tuesday. "They're all nifty and handy with the puck. [They have] good play recognition and patience. That's why they're such a threat in our zone, and we've got to make sure we try to slow down the rush game as well."

In past seasons, the Blues made additions to their lineup through free agency, trades and developing prospects. They signed center Paul Stastny as a high-priced free agent, traded T.J. Oshie to the Washington Capitals to get former Blackhawks forward Troy Brouwer, and developed defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmunson.

The additions mixed well with a core that includes forwards Vladimir Tarasenko, David Backes Alex Steen and Jaden Schwartz, and defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. The Blues have gone from a team that looked to inflict a physical toll to one that has quality depth.

"They're a fast team and they can score as well," said Blackhawks center Marcus Kruger, whose fourth line is sure to draw one of the Blues' top forward groups. "I think they've changed a little bit from previous years. They brought in some good free agents there, with a lot of skill, so they're a very skilled team as well as physical."

The Blues won the season series against the Blackhawks 3-2, with three games decided beyond regulation. Chicago took a 5-2 lead in the first game, played at United Center on Nov. 4, but St. Louis won 6-5 on an overtime goal by Tarasenko.

He also won the final meeting of the regular season, 2-1 in overtime at United Center on April 7. Tarasenko tied the game late in the third period and ended it with his 39th goal.

Video: STL@CHI: Tarasenko ties it late, wins it in overtime

Tarasenko scored four goals in the first four games of the 2014 playoff series before the Blackhawks clamped down in the final two games. Defending him will be more difficult now that he's surrounded by more talent.

"If you can shut him down, obviously, that's going to be good for us," Kruger said. "He's one of the top players in the League and we've got to be aware when he's out there and try to shut him down. But that's going to be a tough task. He scored four goals in four games last time we played them, so he was a pretty good player back then. Now, he's just getting better."

Chicago will likely need all of its top players in peak form in order to defend St. Louis. Quenneville should have a full assortment of lineup options for Game 1; everybody but emergency goalie Michael Leighton practiced before the Blackhawks departed for St. Louis.

That included forward Andrew Ladd and rookie defenseman Viktor Svedberg, who missed practice Monday for maintenance days. Forwards Marian Hossa, Andrew Shaw and Artem Anisimov practiced for a second straight day after each missed games with injuries in the final week of the regular season.

"I think you look at [the Blues] as a physical team and a heavy team, but if you look at their lineup, they're pretty deep up front," Chicago right wing Patrick Kane said. "They have three or four solid lines, and whoever's been in net for them (Brian Elliott or Jake Allen) has been consistent too. It's one of those teams you can look at and say they've maybe been the best team in the League over the past five years, throughout the regular season, and they have that motivating factor to try to win a round in the playoffs. It's going to be a tough series for us."

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