Blues, Blackhawks healthy heading into first-round series
Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane, center, and Brent Seabrook, right, celebrate Kane's goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets with teammates during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 9, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
ST. LOUIS (AP) Apparently, Ken Hitchcock is talked out about the Chicago Blackhawks.
The St. Louis Blues coach cut his news conference short Tuesday a day ahead of the team's first-round playoff matchup against the team that has won three Stanley Cups the last six seasons, including last year.
Hitchcock said his team was at full strength for the first time all season and that it was nice to have choices heading into Game 1 at home on Wednesday night. And that was it.
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''So, let's play,'' Hitchcock said, adding ''thanks'' as he left the interview room to stunned silence.
There hasn't been a repeat Stanley Cup champion since 1998, and the Blackhawks will be opening on the road against a team that won the season series 3-2.
''We know it's not going to be easy,'' Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. ''We're facing as good a team as there is in the league right out of the gate. We've got to be at our best.''
The Blues finished second overall in the Western Conference with 107 points, four more than Chicago. They're the No. 3 playoff seed after overcoming long-term injuries to both goalies as well as forwards Patrik Berglund, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and Alexander Steen.
Captain David Backes made up for Hitchcock's brevity. The top-line forward and goalie Jake Allen are both ready to go after missing the final week of the regular season with lower-body injuries.
''You get the adrenaline running, you can play through a lot of stuff,'' Backes said. ''We're a go.''
Now comes the hard part. The Blues have been eliminated in the first round three straight years, including 2014 when they were ahead 2-0 and then lost four straight to the Blackhawks.
Things to watch for when these two rivals open up what will likely be a bruising series:
REVISITING 2014: The Blues also finished second in the Central two years ago and had home-ice advantage against the Blackhawks. They opened with a pair of overtime victories but the Blackhawks won the next four, two of them in overtime, in a very physical series. Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook was suspended for three games for a hit that sidelined Backes for two games. Duncan Keith had a goal and three assists in the series clincher.
''We don't want to start the same way but knowing that we've been in tough situations before we're going forward with confidence that we can get ourselves out of anything,'' Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said.
MAN DOWN: Like Hitchcock, Quenneville should have options with Andrew Shaw ready for the first time since April 1 and Marian Hossa back after missing the regular-season finale. Keith will miss Game 1, however, finishing a six-game suspension for high-sticking Minnesota's Charlie Coyle.
GOALIE PICTURE: The Blues' Brian Elliott was dominant down the stretch posting three consecutive shutouts in mid-March. He gets the call in Game 1 although Hitchcock has made it clear Allen could see playing time. Corey Crawford is back for Chicago after missing a month with an upper-body injury, returning for the season finale. Crawford had a 1.98 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage in the Blues series in 2014.
BIG STICKS: The Blues have two players to stalk. Patrick Kane is the first American to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer and Toews has a long track record of clutch play. ''It was always kind of a dream of mine as an offensive player, to be able to lead the league in scoring,'' Kane said. ''Hopefully, it doesn't stop now.''
The Blackhawks must account for Vladimir Tarasenko, who led a so-so offense with a career-best 40 goals and has one of the league's quickest releases.
WIN OR ELSE?: Most of the core remains from the Blues' prior playoff failures, including Hitchcock. Players realize this could be their last chance, but also perhaps their best chance at making a deep run.
''We have all the pieces of the puzzle falling in place, which is great,'' defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. ''We still have to go out there and do it.''