Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are the top two teams in the Central Division standings. They met in the Western Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, with St. Louis winning in seven games. The Blues, who advanced to the conference final, also defeated the Blackhawks 5-2 on Oct. 12 in the season opener for each team.
Chicago has won six straight and is one of the hottest teams in the League. St. Louis has lost six of its past 10.
It's also a matchup of great coaches. Ken Hitchcock of the Blues will retire at the end of the season. He's won eight division titles, the Stanley Cup once and ranks fourth all time in wins (764). Joel Quenneville of the Blackhawks has won three division titles, the Stanley Cup three times and ranks second in wins (810) behind Scotty Bowman (1,244). Each is likely to join Bowman in the Hockey Hall of Fame one day.
The Blackhawks (9-3-1) visit the Blues (7-4-2) at Scottrade Center on Wednesday (8 p.m., NBCSN, NHL.TV). They'll play once more before the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2 at Busch Stadium. Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: After starting the season with two straight losses, the Blackhawks are 9-1-1 including the aforementioned six-game winning streak. Chicago has outscored its opponents 22-8 in those six games and is making plays again, something that wasn't happening early on. Artem Anisimov is second in the NHL in scoring with 17 points and has an 11-game point streak. Six other Blackhawks, including Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin and Marian Hossa, also have at least 10 points this season.
Video: DAL@CHI: Anisimov crashes net, slams home rebound
It's not only their stars and key players who are making plays, but some of the young players as well. Rookie Tyler Motte has six points in 13 games, although he'll miss 2-3 weeks with a lower-body injury. Fellow rookies Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz each have three points and have looked good.
Lastly, Corey Crawford has been amazing. Even when they were struggling, he was still giving them a chance, and he still gives them a chance to win every night. Crawford is 6-3-1 with a 2.01 GAA, .936 save percentage and two shutouts; he led the NHL in shutouts last season with seven.
Minuses: The young players I mentioned are a work in progress. They're trying to feel their way into the League. Luckily for them, there isn't as much pressure because of the great play of the veterans and top players, offensively and defensively.
The fourth line of Dennis Rasmussen, Schmaltz and Jordin Tootoo has been an issue, as has defensive depth. Duncan Keith has been paired with Brian Campbell, and stalwarts Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook have been paired with rookies (Gustav Forsling and Michael Kempny).
Chicago has also definitely missed some of the physicality that Bryan Bickell, who was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes on June 15, brought to the team.
Pluses: Vladimir Tarasenko is probably one of the best players in the League and is an underrated passer. He leads the Blues with five goals and 11 points. Paul Stastny (four goals, nine points), is also off to a great start, and Alexander Steen has 10 points in 13 games. When they're at their best, the Blues are great at making plays offensively and are solid defensively.
Video: CBJ@STL: Tarasenko delivers the game-winner in OT
Jake Allen (5-3-2, 2.39 GAA, .903 save percentage, one shutout) has been good, although not as good as he can be, and Carter Hutton (2-1-0, 2.00 GAA, .926 save percentage) has been an excellent backup. Goaltending has always been a strength for the Blues and should continue to be this season.
The Blues are 5-1-1 at home, and defeated the Blackhawks on opening night in Chicago, proving that they can still beat this team after eliminating them from the playoffs last season. If any team can end the Blackhawks' winning streak, it's the Blues.
Minuses: St. Louis has been a little bit inconsistent. They lost back-to-back games to the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars last week, allowing 11 goals and scoring two. They followed that up with home wins against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Colorado Avalanche last weekend. There are times where you watch them play and they make you think twice.
The power play ranks 20th in the League at 16.7 percent. That's a big drop from last season's 21.5 percent, which ranked them sixth in the League.
Three things to watch
1. Confidence: Are the Blues still as confident in themselves against the Blackhawks, especially now that Chicago is playing well?
2. Clash of styles: What will win out, the Blues defending or the Blackhawks attacking?
3. Young players: Colton Parayko and Robby Fabbri for St. Louis, and Schmaltz and Hartman for Chicago.