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Blackhawks face challenge in Central rival Blues

by Brian Hedger
BLACKHAWKS (36-24-7) at BLUES (41-17-7)


Last 10:
Chicago 7-3-0; St. Louis 7-3-0

Season series:
This will be the fourth of six games between the Central Division rivals this season, with the Blackhawks going 2-1-0 in the first three. Chicago dropped a 3-0 game on Nov. 8 at Scottrade Center in St. Louis before winning the next two, including a 5-2 road win on Dec. 3 and a 3-1 triumph on Feb. 19 at the United Center  -- the third of a four-game winning streak that came on the heels of a nine-game winless skid. Marian Hossa has scored three goals to lead the Hawks against St. Louis, while Chris Stewart (2 goals) and T.J. Oshie (1 goal and 1 assist) have led the Blues against Chicago.

Big story: After going 1-3-0 immediately following the loss of captain Jonathan Toews to an upper-body injury believed to be a concussion, the Blackhawks have won three straight games to keep themselves solidly in the Western Conference's playoff picture toward the back half of the top eight. Chicago came from down 3-1 in the first period at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs to begin this hot stretch and then went on the road to ring up tough 2-1 victories in Ottawa and Detroit. Can the Hawks complete the sweep of this challenging three-game road trip in St. Louis? Not if the Blues can translate their recent road success to home ice. St. Louis, which is battling for first in the Central, Western Conference and League standings, is still getting outstanding goaltending from both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, and just completed a six-game road trip with a 5-1-0 record to stay in contention for the Presidents' Trophy.
Team Scope:

Ray Emery is making the most of his latest opportunity to string starts together in net by winning three in a row and being named the NHL's third star of the week on Monday as a reward. Emery has only allowed one goal to get past him in each of the last two games, against two good offenses in Ottawa and Detroit, and has helped bring some solidity to a big area of concern for the Hawks after Corey Crawford's confidence was shaken yet again during a recent three-game losing streak. Chicago beat another top Central team on Sunday in Detroit in physical, hard-hitting nail-biter. Was it merely a good warm-up to facing the hard-hitting, stingy Blues at Scottrade Center?

"Yeah, they play a man's game. No question about it, St. Louis does," Hawks forward Jamal Mayers said. "It's a tough building to win in, and we've got our work cut out for us. We want to focus on ourselves. Clearly they've been playing well and that's why they're one of the top teams in the League. It's a huge challenge for us."

Blues: St. Louis completed a season sweep of the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night at HP Pavilion, when the Blues won 3-1 to conclude a six-game road trip that spanned more than 6,500 miles with just one loss. They built an early two-goal lead through the first two periods, played stifling defense and got yet another outstanding goaltending performance -- this time by Halak, who will also get the start against the Blackhawks. What's happening in the net for the Blues really is an impressive development, with both Halak and Elliott stringing together top-notch performances night after night. The defense has been impeccable, as well, especially when down a skater or two. The Blues have killed off 27 straight power plays dating back to Feb. 14 and don't show signs of cracking anytime soon -- both in special teams play or overall.

"Everyone's been kind of waiting for us to fall off … 'When's St. Louis going to fall off?'" Stewart said. "We've hung in there with the best teams in the League. There's no reason to think why we wouldn't."

Who's hot:
Hossa has recorded points in four straight games and has scored 6 goals with 4 assists in the past 10 games for the Blackhawks. … Oshie has 2 goals and 12 assists in his last 15 games for St. Louis.

Injury report: Chicago's Toews, Steve Montador and Niklas Hjalmarsson are all out with upper-body injuries believed to be concussion-related, but each is making progress. … Kent Huskins (hand bruise) is questionable, while Matt D'Agostini (concussion), Alex Steen (concussion), Kent Russell (concussion) and Jamie Langenbrunner (fractured ankle) are all out for the Blues.

Stat pack:
Chicago has a mark of 11-4-2 against Central Division teams while the Blues are 6-8-2 thus far in the division; St. Louis is 33-0-0 when scoring three or more goals and has a 34-0-1 record since its last regulation loss when scoring three times or more (March 19, 2011 vs. San Jose).

Puck drop: Halak and Elliott have six shutouts each and are just one more away from tying the team’s all-time mark for combined shutouts in a season (13), which was set by Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante in the 1968-69 season.

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