This week's Wednesday Night Rivalry doesn't just feature a classic matchup straight out of the old Norris Division. It also features two of the best teams in the NHL as the Chicago Blackhawks visit the St. Louis Blues (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Both these teams are off to good starts, but I'm especially curious about St. Louis. The Blues do a lot of things well to be a successful team in the League. The question is how close is this team to taking the next step? I believe the Blues are much closer, but where are they now in relation to the Los Angeles Kings or the Blackhawks? We just might find out Wednesday.
A major key will be the play of goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who I expect will have a nice bounce-back year. He spent a lot of time in St. Louis working with their trainer trying to rehabilitate his injuries and get into better shape. Hopefully that will serve him well.
It doesn't hurt that St. Louis also has one of the deepest defensive corps in the League.
Up front, one Blues player a lot of people don't appreciate is Alexander Steen. I'm telling you right now, this guy is one of the most versatile players in the NHL. He has the skill of a top-six forward and he can check as well as any bottom-six forward. He is strong on the puck, he can shoot, he can pass, he plays all three zones, he plays in every situation. If you talk to anyone on the coaching staff in St. Louis, he is one of the guys they rave about.
Overall, I like where this team is at. But come playoff time, they are going to have to get over the hump of playing against L.A, which has eliminated them from the postseason the past two years. They gave the Kings all they could handle last year when they took a 2-0 series lead before losing four straight games in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Are they now able to get past a team like that? Only time will tell.
When it comes to the defending Stanley Cup champions, how can you not like where Chicago is at? I love their core. You have Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival as your third pairing. That's a pretty spectacular third pairing. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya play so well together and then Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith is arguably the best tandem in the League.
Some Cup-winning teams battle the dreaded "championship hangover" at the start of the season immediately following their title run. But there's one big reason why that won't happen with Chicago. Hint: He wears No. 19.
Jonathan Toews is going to be giving you the stink eye if you're not playing your game. He expects a lot from these guys and is just so mature the way he handles himself. That's really infectious. He's not going to let himself get complacent and his teammates won't get complacent on his watch.
In the end, this great matchup should come down to the two excellent coaches manning the benches.
Both Joel Quenneville of the Blackhawks and Ken Hitchcock of the Blues are chess masters, especially Hitch. Coach Hitchcock looks at every nuance, every detail. He's highly detail-oriented and that's why he has been so successful. Same thing with coach Quenneville.
And both of these coaches have played a major role in their teams' success these past few years.
When Hitchcock came to St. Louis in 2011, all of a sudden those guys started frustrating teams, holding them to 15-20 shots. He was able to impress upon his young talented St. Louis group that they have to check and play well without the puck. Same thing with Coach Q. When he came to Chicago in 2008, he had all these young thoroughbreds. He has since molded the Blackhawks into a responsible two-way team that is also a joy to watch. That's a tough job in its own right.
I think it's very likely that these teams meet at some point in the postseason. That is where games like this are so important. If you're St. Louis and you want to take the next step, you can start by showing on national television how well you match up against Chicago. After all, the Hawks are the team you need to get through to get the ultimate prize.