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Scoring early focus for Hawks against physical Blues

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO -- The last time they saw the St. Louis Blues, the Chicago Blackhawks were routed 5-1 and outhit by a 27-11 count at Scottrade Center.

Those are the biggest reasons the Hawks have been asked the past week whether they're too "soft" to be successful against hard-hitting, defensive-oriented teams like the Blues -- who face Chicago again on Tuesday night at United Center.

The season series, however, shows that both teams have won two of the first four games and the hits tally isn't that heavily skewed in the Blues' favor. In fact, the Hawks outhit St. Louis the last time the Blues were in town on Feb. 19 and triumphed 3-1 in that game. The Hawks can hit, too, but they don't want it to come at the expense of their skill game.

Would scoring an early goal or two be just as strong of a message on Tuesday night as "lighting up" a few Blues players with big, punishing hits?

"Absolutely," Chicago forward Patrick Sharp said following Tuesday's morning skate. "I think that when we're playing our best, we're skating, we're getting to pucks first and I know on the stat sheet it doesn't really show that we're leading in hits ... but that's our gritty style of play. It's being willing to get to the dirty areas, go to the net and go to the corners."

Sharp then pointed to one of the Hawks' multitude of rookies, who've made an impact this season, as a prime example.

"You don't have to look any further than Andrew Shaw," Sharp said. "He's a guy that does it every shift. He sacrifices his body and then goes and gets that puck. To me, that's playing physical. It's not so much the fighting and the big hits."

Of course, with St. Louis-area product Brandon Bollig in the lineup -- another Hawks rookie forward -- there's also the potential for fighting and big hits coming from Chicago's side of the ledger. Bollig has fought somebody in four straight games and the Hawks' fourth line is stocked with big-bodied forwards who can hit, scrap and add enough skill to be dangerous.

Still, there might not be a better way to "stand up" to the Blues than to pot an early goal -- especially against the seemingly impenetrable Jaroslav Halak.

"You win the game by scoring goals, so I think that would be most important," Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "Obviously they're a physical team and I think that helps their cause, but for sure I think getting the first goal tonight would be ideal."

Blackhawks star forward Patrick Kane couldn't agree more, but cautioned against trying to force things too much offensively.

"You've got to be careful," said Kane, who's filling in at center on the top line for injured captain Jonathan Toews. "You can't get running up the ice too much and get caught cheating trying to score, especially against a team like this that's so defensive. That can kind of haunt you. The first goal's going to be huge. The last game, they got the first couple goals and after that it was pretty much shut-down mode and we were trying to force things. It doesn't work out that way."

It also doesn't behoove the Hawks to not finish their own checks. It's a tough balance to strike, but they've already found a way to do it twice this season against the League-leading Blues, who've won five straight games and nine of the past 10.

"You want to be physical, especially on their top guys," Kane said. "That's what they like to do to us. I'm sure that's something they preach over there before the game and in intermissions. You don't want to run around too much and get yourself caught, to where they're getting more chances than we give them [normally]. You want to be careful, but at the same time if the hit's there you've got to take it."
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