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Undermanned Blackhawks find a way against Blues

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- Despite missing some key players, the Chicago Blackhawks are building their depth with some new faces and winning big games heading into the last week of the regular season.

They won their third straight game Sunday by defeating the St. Louis Blues 4-2 with another hard-work effort at United Center to keep pace with the Colorado Avalanche in a race for second place in the Central Division.

"Three games in a row I thought we played the same, exact way," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "We played the right way, worked hard, [were] very effective [and] efficient. Everybody contributed and we scored some ugly goals, but we played the right way to get rewarded."

Jeremy Morin scored for the second straight game and finished with a goal and an assist. Patrick Sharp scored his 33rd goal, Marcus Kruger made it 3-1 early in the third and Ben Smith capped it with his second goal in as many games, scoring into an empty net to seal it for the Blackhawks (45-19-15).

Corey Crawford made 21 saves and improved to 31-15-10 with the win. Next up for Chicago is the home finale on Wednesday against the red-hot Montreal Canadiens.

"We can't look too far ahead," Crawford said. "We can't get ahead of ourselves. It's the way we approach every game, every year. It's just about what's coming next and move on from there. We want to grab home-ice advantage and have that for the first round, so it's a really important game coming up here [Wednesday]."

Jaden Schwartz scored less than two minutes into the game and Vladimir Sobotka scored with 2:02 left in regulation for the Blues (52-19-7), whose offensive struggles continued in losses on both ends of a weekend back-to-back against the teams directly behind them in the Central.

Brian Elliott made 31 saves for St. Louis (111 points), which has four games left to surpass the Boston Bruins (113) in the chase for the Presidents' Trophy.

The Blues have scored two or fewer goals in eight of their previous 11 games and had 15 shots midway through the third before rallying to finish with 23. They played a third straight game without leading scorer Alexander Steen (upper body), but aren't pinning it on his absence.

"I think the details of our game are probably lacking," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We look like we're a little bit tired, so the details that fit us so well and our energy to put those details in place are probably lacking a little bit right now. But we still have four more games to play, so we have a lot of hockey to play yet. We have to find a way to re-energize ourselves and get back to work."

Along with injuries to captain Jonathan Toews (upper body), right wing Patrick Kane (lower body) and defenseman Johnny Oduya (lower body), Chicago played without forward Brandon Saad. Quenneville made him a healthy scratch after some recent struggles.

Just as they did when Toews joined Kane on the sidelines for the remainder of the regular season, the Blackhawks shrugged it off and found a way to beat the Blues for the second time in the five-game season series.

"The last couple games it's been a little bit better as far as playing as full 60 [minutes] and playing a simple game," Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said. "Obviously we miss Kane and Toews in the lineup and a few other guys, but when we have everybody playing hard and contributing, it helps."

It didn't take long for the game to reach a high intensity level, which has become the norm in this rivalry.

Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw was called for cross-checking Alex Pietrangelo after the Blues defenseman left the ice 1:45 into the game. It was retaliation for Pietrangelo knocking him to the ice in front of the benches with the puck already in Chicago's end of the rink and put St. Louis on the power play.

Schwartz scored the game's first goal 12 seconds later.

After a shot by Brenden Morrow was blocked by Sheldon Brookbank, the puck slid out to the left circle for Schwartz. He snapped a hard shot through traffic that beat Crawford for his 24th goal and a quick 1-0 lead. St. Louis only put two more shots on goal the rest of the period.

"I don't think we had it in [the offensive] zone enough times and a couple mistakes ended up in the back of our net," Schwartz said. "Overall, we just didn't control enough in their end and didn't bring enough to the net. I think we had six, seven shots halfway through the game and against a team like that, that's not enough."

Backed by two power plays, the Blackhawks outshot St. Louis 11-3 in the first and generated several good scoring chances. Elliott was up to the challenge each time. Chicago's power play wound up 0-for-4 in the game, but it didn't matter.

The lopsided advantage in offense continued into the second, when Morin tied it 1-1 at 8:34 with his third goal of the season and second in as many games. It was the product of hard work by the Blackhawks' third line, which has proven instrumental since Toews was sidelined.

The trio of left wing Bryan Bickell, center Peter Regin and Morin on the right wing has produced a goal in each of the past three games, and this one was created by grit. Regin and Morin crashed the net after Bickell fired a hard wrist shot at Elliott from the top of the left circle, and Morin got a stick on the rebound to knock it home.

"That's how you've got to get goals in this League is to crash the net with second opportunities," Morin said. "That's what we're trying to do and it's paying off."

Morin played a key role in Chicago taking its first lead as well. He zipped a tape-to-tape pass during a 2-on-1 rush late in the second and Sharp did the rest, snapping a one-timer into the upper left corner of the net at 19:33 for a 2-1 lead.

"I think [Morin's] got a little more confidence with the puck," Quenneville said. "He's got a big shot. He's simple, direct, straight ahead. You get a little more comfortable with the puck and the way we have to play, and I think it's starting to show that he's got a little more of a purpose behind his play."

The Blackhawks' bottom six forwards produced the next goal as well.

Kruger got to the front of the net alone and shoveled home a rebound of Joakim Nordstrom's shot 56 seconds into the third for a 3-1 lead. Sobotka fired one past Crawford from the left circle at 17:58, but that was as close as the Blues would get.

Smith, who scored with 3.9 seconds left in regulation Friday to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, again scored with less than four seconds left to seal it. This time he shot the puck into a vacated net with 3.3 seconds remaining to apply the finishing touches.

The Blackhawks, however, are still looking up at the Avalanche in the standings with time running out in the chase to win home ice in the Western Conference First Round.

"We've kept it interesting and they go and win six games in a row, so give them credit," Quenneville said. "They're playing well and they've had our number most of the year. We'd love to get [home ice] and if we don't get it we'll deal with it."

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