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 have had similar regular-season success during the past six seasons; each has won the Central Division twice. But the similarities end when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin. The Blackhawks have won the Cup three times in the past six seasons; the Blues have lost in the first round of the in each of the past three seasons.
The Blackhawks have 87 points, one behind the first-place Dallas Stars and two more than the third-place Blues. Points are at a premium and home ice in the playoffs is on the line.
Each of these Central Division rivals wants to break away from the pack down the stretch. It starts when the Blackhawks (41-21-5) visit the Blues (38-20-9) at Scottrade Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TVA Sports). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses -- Patrick Kane and his line have not slowed down all season. Kane has 38 goals and leads the League in points (89). Linemate Artemi Panarin leads all rookies in scoring (24 goals, 61 points), and center Artem Anisimov has 19 goals.
Forward Marian Hossa could return to the lineup after missing eight games with a lower-body injury. He skated on a line with Jonathan Toews and Andrew Ladd at practice Tuesday, and although he has 10 goals and 28 points this season, he is a winner and only makes them better. Hossa is one of the most complete players in the League.
The added depth that Chicago has after the NHL Trading Deadline (Ladd, Tomas Fleischmann, Dale Weise) can't be discounted. The Blackhawks are a very deep team and always know the right players to acquire; that's one reason they won the Stanley Cup three times in six seasons.
Minuses -- The Blackhawks have played a lot of hockey in the past seven seasons, making the Western Conference Final five times. I'm waiting to see if it catches up to them eventually, but it hasn't yet. They've played 117 postseason games, roughly a season and a-half of extra hockey, during that time.
By the Blackhawks' standards, they have been a little inconsistent at times this season. They have five wins in 11 games (5-5-1) and their penalty kill (79.4 percent) needs work.
On defense coming down the stretch and into the playoffs, are they able to offset not having Johnny Oduya there? They basically had two No.1 defensive pairings in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson; now they have to fill Oduya's role.
Pluses -- Their goaltending has been great. Jake Allen and Brian Elliott each carried the team when the other was injured. Allen started the season getting the bulk of the starts, but Elliott started 18 straight games when Allen was out with a knee injury and went 12-3-3. Allen returned and regained the job after Elliott went down with a lower-body injury. He has the Blues competing for first place in the division.
Another key for the Blues is their system; they are well-coached with Ken Hitchcock, Brad Shaw and Kirk Muller behind the bench. In some past years, they may have been a little overstretched, but this year it hasn't been like that.
Jaden Schwartz, who recently returned from an ankle injury, has picked up where he left off. The first-line left wing has five goals and 13 points in 18 games this season, skating with Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko. Having Schwartz and Tarasenko healthy allows the Blues to play more of a skilled, up-tempo game.
Minuses -- Injuries have been a big problem. Elliott is skating but not ready to return, and forwards Alexander Steen and Steve Ott are also on injured reserve. They have lost 239 man-games to injury heading into the game, one reason they rank in the bottom quarter of the League in scoring at 2.48 goals-per game.
Another challenge for the Blues is that they aren't as explosive as Chicago or Dallas, the two teams above them. They are extremely good defensively, but the lack of offense could cost them. They haven't gone deep in the Stanley Cup Playoffs yet; they lost in the first round in each of the past three seasons. I don't think anyone would be surprised if that changes this year, but it's a tough road when you have to go through Chicago or the Los Angeles Kings.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. The Blues will try to play a more physical game
2. Look for the Blues to try and score early; that's something the Blackhawks are extremely good at.
3. The coaching matchup between Joel Quenneville and Hitchcock. They rank second and fourth, respectively, in career NHL wins and are two of the best of all time.