CHICAGO — The last title defense for the Chicago Blackhawks also started with the St. Louis Blues, and it nearly ended there, too. Four of the six games went to overtime before the Blackhawks moved on.
While most of the finer details from that 2014 playoff series have faded into history, Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson remembers how close it was, enough to brace himself for what is coming this time around.
"St. Louis is a great team, and I know we’re going to have a handful to try to get these guys out," Hjalmarsson said after the Blackhawks practiced on Monday. "I know they’re going to be super motivated."
It has been almost two decades since the NHL last had a repeat champion, and that is the challenge for the Blackhawks as they go for their fourth Stanley Cup title in seven seasons beginning Wednesday night in St. Louis. The potential road for Jonathan Toews and company includes a couple of motivated challengers, beginning with the bruising Blues.
St. Louis also finished second in the Central Division two years ago, earning home-ice advantage in the first round against the third-place Blackhawks. The Blues opened with a pair of overtime victories, and then dropped four in a row — including overtime losses in Games 4 and 5.
While Duncan Keith delivered a memorable performance for Chicago in the clinching game with a goal and three assists, the most memorable play from the series was a wipeout hit by Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook on Blues forward David Backes at the end of Game 2, ramping up the intensity between the rivals. Seabrook was suspended for three games and Backes returned for Game 5.
"We had a chance to put them away because we played so well early in the series," St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock said. "But as the series went on, their top guys really took over. That’s the small, fine line."
The Blackhawks should have all but one of their top guys in place for Game 1 after missing a couple of their regulars in the final days of the season. Keith has to sit out the playoff opener to finish off his six-game suspension for high-sticking Minnesota forward Charlie Coyle.
While Andrew Ladd missed Monday’s practice for "maintenance," according to coach Joel Quenneville, forwards Artem Anisimov, Andrew Shaw and Marian Hossa were on the ice after being held out of the season finale due to injuries. Quenneville also said defenseman Viktor Svedberg (lower body) is going to be fine.
Shaw, who had 14 goals and a career-high 20 assists this season, hasn’t played since he left Chicago’s 5-4 overtime victory at Winnipeg on April 1 with an upper-body injury.
"It’s nice to get a little extra rest, but makes you a little bit more hungry to get restarted," he said. "Excited for Wednesday."
The Blackhawks also recalled defenseman David Rundblad from the minors and reassigned forwards Bryan Bickell and Dennis Rasmussen to Rockford of the American Hockey League. Rundblad appeared in five playoff games in Chicago’s run to the title a year ago, but hasn’t played an NHL game since Dec. 13.
Chicago and St. Louis just played each other last Thursday, with the Blues winning 2-1 in overtime. But each side was without several key players.
Backes and goaltender Jake Allen (lower body) both practiced Tuesday. Allen is expected to back up Brian Elliott in Game 1. Forward Steve Ott also is skating again after missing much of the season due to hamstring surgery and then colitis.
"It’s not going to be easy against this team," Toews said. "Obviously, we have a history with St. Louis. They’re one of those teams that competes like no other and we know starting on the road is not going to be easy, so we have to have our best right away."