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 (nine straight seasons) and St. Louis Blues (six) each have long streaks of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but neither will be satisfied with anything less than winning the Cup. Last season, the Blackhawks were eliminated from the Western Conference First Round and the Blues from the second round, each by the Nashville Predators.
The Blackhawks have been buoyed this season by goalie Corey Crawford and forward Brandon Saad, who has four game-winning goals. The Blues won their first four games thanks in part to goalie Jake Allen and forward Brayden Schenn.
There should be a playoff feel when the Blackhawks (4-1-1) visit the Blues (4-2-0) at Scottrade Center on Wednesday (8 p.m., NBCSN, NHL.TV).
Pluses: Saad (6-2-8) has had a seamless transition in his return to Chicago. He had a hat trick in his first game and hasn't slowed down since. His four game-winning goals are as many as he had last season.
Video: NSH@CHI: Saad taps in game-winning goal in OT
I think if Crawford can stay healthy, he may be able to challenge for the Vezina Trophy. Last season, before he was injured, he was in the conversation. This season, he's 4-1-0 with a 1.39 goals-against average and .960 save percentage. People forget he's had at least 30 wins in each of his past six full NHL seasons.
Forward Patrick Kane continues to make plays the Blackhawks need because he generates so much offense for them and they rely on him a lot. With eight points (two goals, six assists) in six games, he hasn't missed running mate Artemi Panarin, who was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Saad on June 23.
Minuses: Chicago is fortunate that defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are healthy. Beyond that pair, they are kind of weak. Jan Rutta and Gustav Forsling each have four points, but they're young and inexperienced, and Chicago can't always count on the two main guys for everything. They can't play 60 minutes every night, even though it may seem like it.
Will the Blackhawks get production out of their fourth line? They will need some. They have scored 25 goals through six games but not much has come from the lower part of the lineup.
Pluses: Forward Vladimir Tarasenko has four goals in six games after scoring at least 37 in each of the past three seasons. He's one of the elite goal-scorers in the League and is always a threat. He can change a game with his offense.
Video: STL@TBL: Tarasenko buries a wrister through bodies
Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has been the Blues' best player. I find now that watching him play, there's a level of completeness to his game. I think that he has a little more of an edge in physicality to his game. He's also not deferring his offensive game; he's St. Louis' co-leader in points with eight (two goals, six assists). Since Kevin Shattenkirk was traded to the Washington Capitals on Feb. 27, Pietrangelo has 26 points (seven goals, 19 assists) in 26 games.
Schenn has been really good. He has six points (two goals, four assists) and plays in all situations (even strength, shorthanded, power play). He's also been the top center and has taken and won plenty of key faceoffs. He's had a seamless transition to St. Louis from the Philadelphia Flyers.
Forward Alexander Steen will return to the lineup. He's been out since breaking his left hand Sept. 19 and will be a big boost to the offense.
Minuses: The Blues have done a good job despite their injuries (Steen, Robby Fabbri, Patrik Berglund, Jay Bouwmeester), but they can't expect to rely on their horses until those guys get healthy. More production is needed from their fourth line. You have to be a four-line team in this League, especially in the Central Division.
The Blues have scored three goals and are 1-for-8 on the power play in their past two games. Playing against the Blackhawks, they'll need to make the most of their chances to get two points.
Three things to watch
1. The goalie matchup between Crawford and Allen.
2. Will the Blues be fired up for their first game at home following a four-game road trip?
3. How do the young kids on each team do?