It may still only read February on the calendar, but Sunday’s game for the Chicago Blackhawks represents not just a regular season game against the St. Louis Blues, but also one of their last chances to make a serious impact in the Central Division race.
That’s because the Hawks will not only have a mere two games remaining against the Blues after Sunday morning’s contest, but they are also done playing the division-leading Nashville Predators for the season. Both things are important for the Blackhawks because they currently trail Nashville by eight points in the division standings, and they are six points behind the Blues going into Sunday’s action.
A loss to the Blues on Sunday would mean that the Blackhawks would trail both clubs by eight points, and even with 29 games to go, it would still be just that much tougher to catch both teams considering the limited number of games that they have left against St. Louis.
Complicating matters for the Blackhawks is that the Blues are one of the hottest teams in the NHL, and they are also one of the toughest to play against on the road. St. Louis is 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, and they recently went on a stretch where they won 11 out of 12 games. They did just get throttled by the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night in a 7-1 disaster at Nationwide Arena, but that loss was a rare one for a team that is closing fast on the Predators at the top of the food chain.
The Blues are also 20-4-2 on home ice this season, with that win total being the second-best number in the Western Conference. The fact that the Hawks are such a good road draw helps neutralize that advantage just a bit, but St. Louis’ blend of aggressive physical play and quick-strike offensive ability is something that has to concern the Blackhawks as they try to move past their recent struggles.
When the teams hit the ice, there will be a few things to keep an eye on. First and foremost on the list is the transition game, where the Blackhawks usually hold a decided edge, but St. Louis gives them a run for their money. Alex Pietrangelo is one of the best in the business at getting the puck in the defensive zone and firing the puck up the ice to start a quick rush the other way, and with players like Vladimir Tarasenko on the receiving end of those passes, the Blues have some weapons that can really hurt teams.
That skill in transition means that the Blackhawks will have to be extra careful and responsible with their pinches in from the blue line today, and that isn’t something they’ve been good at recently. Johnny Oduya will especially have to be vigilant in this one, as his defensive indiscipline has cost the team a good number of goals this season.
The other big factor for the Hawks is that they have got to stay out of the penalty box. Their penalty killing unit is excellent, but the Blues have the second-best power play in the NHL, and they have all sorts of players that can hurt the Hawks if they wear a rut to the sin bin.