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 are where the St. Louis Blues want to be, having won the Stanley Cup three times in six seasons. The Blues always play well during the regular season but have faltered in the playoffs in recent seasons. This will feel like a playoff game and will be a good test for both teams.
From the Blackhawks side, they just feel it. The record isn't indicative of how well they've been playing, and they just have the ability to arise any time which is impressive. And the Blues have won eight of their 12 games this season despite a ton of injuries.
Coach Joel Quenneville is the best coach in the world right now, and a lot of his coaching goes back to his time in St. Louis. He had a long career with the Blues and has had an unprecedented run with the Blackhawks.
The Blues (8-3-1) visit the Blackhawks (7-5-0) at United Center Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: The Blackhawks are missing Duncan Keith, a two-time Norris Trophy winner. As a super-elite defenseman missing from the lineup, Chicago has been pretty good. Not to mention, if you look at their Cup team from last season, there's no Kris Versteeg, there's no Johnny Oduya, there's no Brad Richards, there was no Keith or Marian Hossa on Tuesday night, and look at the way they played, scoring three third-period goals in a 4-2 win against the Los Angeles Kings. By the way, can those two teams just keep playing? It's the cream of the crop watching those two teams play.
Also, the amazing start of Patrick Kane. He has 16 points in 12 games. It's not only the points he does have, but it's how many more points he could have based on the way he is playing. He ends up getting stoned by Jonathan Quick several times on Monday, but then he ends up coming back and scores.
Then there's captain Jonathan Toews, who continues to do it both on the ice and in the locker room. When he's not scoring, he's motivating his teammates. Take Monday night, for example. After Toews assisted on Artem Anisimov's goal, he went over to him and started screaming at him in an uplifting way. You NHL fans go back and look at how Toews got in his face saying, "That's what we need from you!" That's leadership right there, and that says a lot to me.
Lastly, the way newcomers Artemi Panarin and Anisimov are playing has been huge for Chicago. Each has transitioned smoothly into their respective roles.
Minuses: The one minus for the Blackhawks has been health. In addition to Keith being sidelined for a while with a knee injury, Hossa didn't play Monday because of a lower-body injury. Those are two key pieces for the Blackhawks.
Pluses: Goalie Jake Allen has hit his stride, which they needed him to do. He's allowed five goals in his past four games. I spoke to coach Ken Hitchcock last week and he had mentioned their injuries and he was really happy where they are based on that. Vladimir Tarasenko will be back which is huge. He's a game-breaker and a superstar already.
The Blues have a great team structure and are well-coached and well-prepared. They have that Ken Hitchcock structure, and that gives them a chance to win every night.
St. Louis also has big, mobile defenseman. In addition to Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, rookie Colton Parayko has been outstanding. He's big, skates well and has a rocket of a shot, and looks like a veteran NHL defenseman.
Lastly, they have a game-breaker in Tarasenko, which they have needed for years. He has six goals and 10 points in 11 games and returned to the lineup Tuesday. The Blues have also gotten contributions out of everybody. They have become a more offensive team in addition to Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, who is injured, up front.
Minuses: I'm not sure if they believe they can defeat the Blackhawks if all the chips are on the line. Do they have that yet? These are the types of game that go a long way towards helping them develop that.
Not to mention all the injuries (Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund, Jaden Schwartz and Kevin Shattenkirk), don't help, although they have done quite well in the absence of those players.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. The incredible skill and chemistry of Kane and Panarin.
2. The will and impact that Jonathan Toews has on the game.
3. Vladimir Tarasenko. He's one of the most dynamic players in the League and is fun to watch.