Six months ago, when St. Louis clinched a 2013 playoff berth, GM Doug Armstrong took one look at the eventual Stanley Cup champions and told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "I don't want to play Chicago right now."
Instead, the Blues got Los Angeles, who eliminated them in a brutally fought six-game series. With NHL re-alignment, the odds of an eventual Blackhawks-Blues post-season showdown are increased.
"That would be awesome," St. Louis defenceman Barret Jackman said Tuesday. "Since they turned the team around, they've made [the United Center] a great place to play... The Blackhawks are the biggest rivalry we have."
"The old Norris Division still lives in everybody's eyes here," added head coach Ken Hitchcock. "These fans know every series St. Louis played Chicago."
The two teams were moved into the Norris with Detroit, Minnesota and Toronto for the 1981-82 season. (Winnipeg lasted one year before being moved west.) If you grew up in one of these markets, you'll have some great memories. These clubs genuinely hated each other.
Over the next 13 years, the Blackhawks
had eight playoff meetings, Chicago winning six. The hockey lovers Hitchcock mentioned no doubt remember the last one -- a St. Louis sweep against a Chicago team that was 21 points better in 1992-93.
In the last 20 seasons, they've met just once. The two teams play Wednesday night
in Missouri, a nice appetizer to what could be a tasty main course in the spring. Fans can only hope the new divisional setup gets dormant post-season rivalries like this one going again.
Quite simply, Chicago has what St. Louis wants.
"There's jealousy," Jackman admits. "We respect what they've done. They're not a flash in the pan, they've had a lot of success. The hatred, the wanting to knock them off makes it a lot of fun."
"The best thing about the next three games is we'll be getting good information on where we're at," Hitchcock said, as dates with the Rangers and San Jose follow. "The way I look at playing them is as a can't-lose. We'll come out either more confident or knowing how difficult it is.
"When everything is on the line... there seems to be a period of time when their key guys go to another level. We want our guys to get there."Blues demand more
The Blues began that process with their exit interviews last May.
"We asked every guy on this team to go home and tell us what he needs to do better, what 10 per cent more can he bring to this group," Hitchcock said. "That's how we could catch Chicago and Los Angeles."
For example, captain David Backes was asked to change his workout routine. He would stay off the ice until mid-August, building up the strength he needed for the physical style he plays. The team asked him to add more "fluidness" to his game, to subtract some of those off-ice workoutsion favour of earlier on-ice training. He started skating three times per week in July.
The other request was for the group to take greater ownership of its own accountability.
"It's going to a teammate and saying, 'We need more from you,'" Jackman said. "You're not belittling them, you're saying it the right way. You don't need to get in a guy's face. You're asking more and then making sure that the person asking is giving more yourself.
"It's already happened."
"Don't ask if you're not willing to give more of yourself," Hitchcock added. "It can't come from the coach all the time, or the coaching staff. And before you ask, make sure you've given.
"They bought in," he said. St. Louis is the first team since the 1991-92 Calgary Flames to have 10 different scorers through the first two games of a season.
"I like our team right now," Jackman said. "I like our depth and our goaltending. We don't have a natural scorer like Patrick Kane or a Kane-Jonathan Toews attack, but if we shut them down and spread our scoring around, we can beat them."
First test Wednesday night. But wouldn't we all love to see a much bigger test later?
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