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Blues must believe they can defeat Blackhawks

by Kevin Weekes / NHL.com

Each Wednesday throughout the regular season Kevin Weekes will be offering his plusses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.

NBCSN has a good one Wednesday night, a Central Division rivalry between teams that met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and might go down to the wire with the Nashville Predators this season for first place in the Central Division.

The Chicago Blackhawks found their game on their "Circus Trip," winning five of six games away from United Center. They actually found it in their previous home game, when they blew out the Dallas Stars 6-2 on Nov. 16.

The St. Louis Blues are finding ways to win too and have three more points in the standings than the Blackhawks. St. Louis has won two in a row and is 4-0-1 in its past five games.

NBCSN has a good one here at 8 p.m. ET, so let's break it down the way we do every Wednesday, with a little bit of what I like, a little bit of what leaves me wanting more, and three things you simply must look out for when you're watching the game.

BLACKHAWKS

Plusses: I really like the fact that Joel Quenneville has reunited Brad Richards and Patrick Kane, and I say reunited because they played together in the preseason and started building chemistry. The start of the season came and they were split up. I don't know why. It didn't make any sense to me.

In the preseason it was Richards with Kane and Brandon Saad, and that went away quickly. Richards' ice time was cut down and it didn't really make much sense to me.

But fast forward to now, and Quenneville has reunited Richards and Kane with Kris Versteeg, and that line is on fire. That line has 30 points in the past seven games. That line is now the hottest in the League.

It's not that they're all skilled players. They're working hard on the forecheck and a couple of their goals came as a result of turning pucks over via the forecheck, regaining possession and then scoring.

They've been excellent, and coincidentally since that line has been united the Blackhawks have taken off too, winning six of their past seven games.

I also like the fact that their defense is back to being active and playing fast again. Chicago's transition game is back. The Blackhawks are making plays and a lot of it starts with their 'D', which it usually does when they're on their game.

They've been torching teams with transition and speed. Duncan Keith has been jumping up a lot more from the blue line to make plays.

All in all, they're back to looking like Chicago Blackhawks again.

Minuses: The one guy I want more from, the guy who should be a bigger factor, is Bryan Bickell. He just always leaves me wanting more.

Bickell can and should be an impact player on that team because he's a good player, but I don't think he believes in how good of a player he really is.

That's my big challenge for him. He has to start believing in how good he is and playing to that.

He has been a big factor in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but you can't just wait until the playoffs to get it going and expect it to happen. You get paid for the regular season, you don't get paid in the playoffs.

Yes, the playoffs are more important, but the checks don't come in the playoffs, you only get the bonuses. You have to play in the regular season. I feel he can be a more effective player than he is in the regular season.

Vladimir Tarasenko
Right Wing - STL
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 26
SOG: 91 | +/-: 17
BLUES

Plusses: What I really like about the Blues is what I can continue to like about them. It starts with Vladimir Tarasenko and goes to Jaden Schwartz and Jori Lehtera. That's what I love about them. Those guys have been awesome all season long.

They can defeat you in so many ways. They're fast. They can own the puck. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told me he's impressed with how hard those guys work to get the puck back when they don't have it. It's one thing to be skilled, it's another to be skilled and work as hard as they are working.

Hitchcock really likes that about these players, and I can see why. They don't rest on getting the puck and making a play. They're working to regain it.

Minuses: A minus for the Blues right now, and this might be an unfair indictment, but I don't know if this team genuinely believes that's ready to get to that next level.

I know that's Hitchcock's challenge. He and general manager Doug Armstrong have won together elsewhere and their expectation is to win in St. Louis, but I don't know. Only time will tell, but I don't know if the players believe fully that they can beat teams like the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago.

I'm not saying they can't, but I'm not sure if they mentally believe they can take down the Kings and Blackhawks in a seven-game series.

Yes they're playing well, rolling. They have a good squad. They're well coached. But can they get past the Kings and Blackhawks? Can they get over the hump? Do they believe they can? That's the question.

You can say what you want but I think that starts building right now in the regular season.

Let me put it this way, I know right now Chicago goes in every game against St. Louis feeling that it can win and believing that it can. The Kings go into every game against the Blues feeling that they can defeat them. Do the Blues go into every game against the Kings and Blackhawks feeling they can win? Are they mentally strong enough? That's the next hurdle.

You can't play a playoff game in December but it is one step at a time for that Stanley Cup mindset, and Hitchcock and Armstrong know that as well as anybody. They've been there. They know what that takes. They have to see the team continuing to make those progressions.

TALE OF THE TAPE: BLUES-BLACKHAWKS
16-6-2 (2nd, Central) 2014-15 Record 15-8-1 (3rd, Central)
1641-1475-432-112 All-Time Record 2557-2564-814-113
117-128-35-12 Head-to-Head Regular-Season Record 140-110-35-7
1-0-0 Streak vs. Opponent 0-1-0
0-2-0 @ Chicago Home/Road Streak vs. Opponent 10-0-2 vs. Blues
0 Stanley Cup Championships 5
18 Hockey Hall of Fame Members 43
Brett Hull Most Famous Alumnus Bobby Hull
2 Hart Trophy Winners 6
38 Postseason Appearances 59
Glenn Hall (1967-71) Best Player in Common Glenn Hall (1957-67)

If the Blackhawks lose the game Wednesday you know they're going to say, "It's all good, no problem, we know we've got these guys." Same thing if the Kings lose to the Blues. They know they got it.

The Blues have to know they've got the Blackhawks. That's why I think this game means more to the Blues than the Blackhawks. It goes a long way to the Blues continuing to feel that they can defeat these teams.

Adding one more thing, I want more production out of Alexander Steen. It doesn't make sense to me that he isn't producing at a better clip than 15 points in 24 games this season. Maybe it's a bit of a market correction from what he did last season, but he's nowhere near where he was last season and, more concerning, is he's not getting the same looks he got last season.

You can look at the emergence of Tarasenko and those players and feel good in St. Louis, but it can't come at the expense of Steen.

Three things to watch

1. Tempo and pace

Chicago is playing fast and the Blues are a faster team now than they've ever been under Hitchcock. They attack more than they have, not only off the rush but through neutral zone counters. Which team will have its desired pace?

2. Line matchups

Who is going up against Lehtera and Tarasenko? Conversely, who is matching up against the Richards line with Kane and Versteeg?

3. Big opportunities for the goalies

Corey Crawford can't play, so Antti Raanta gets a big opportunity to earn more playing time. Jake Allen has earned his playing time, but now he has Martin Brodeur breathing down his neck. This is a huge game for each goalie.

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