Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews guaranteed all those characteristics will be in place by the time the two teams get done with first meeting of the season.
“If I remember correctly, earlier in the season last year, it’s always the same questions when we play St. Louis,” Toews said after the team’s morning skate. “‘What’s the pace going to be like?’ It was maybe a slower start in that first game, but eventually all is not forgotten and it comes back pretty quick. By the end of it, it’s a playoff style even if it’s early in the season. We’ll be ready for that.
“It keeps getting better and better every time we play this team. Don’t expect anything less tonight.”
The Blackhawks and Blues have been building levels to their rivalry the last few seasons, and it was taken to another one when they met in the playoffs last season. The Blues pulled out consecutive overtime games to gain a 2-0 series advantage, but the Blackhawks responded with four wins to eliminate the Blues.
There was plenty of drama within the series as well. Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook was suspended three games when his elbow and shoulder connected with Blues forward David Backes’ head in Game 2 of the series. A television mic caught an unidentified player saying, “Wakey, wakey,” to Backes while he was dazed from the hit. Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith denied saying it. Backes missed two games with an upper-body injury.
Backes said he didn’t have any ill feelings toward Seabrook, but Backes is ready for a physical game.
“We’ll finish check as hard as we can,” Backes said after his team’s morning skate. “You know we’ll see what happens.”
Just as the Blackhawks-Vancouver Canucks’ rivalry increased after meeting in the playoffs, Toews believes the same is happening to the Blackhawks-Blues’ one.
“There’s always great games between these two teams, physical games, a lot of hatred throughout the regular season, but obviously a playoff series will add to that,” Toews said. “We all know the storylines that came out of the series last year. It’s not going to get any easier, any lighter out there I don’t think.
“It got personal last year. It’s only going to get more so this year. We don’t doubt that at some point if we want to have success and go deep in the playoffs, we’re going to have to run through this team. Chances are pretty good we’re going to bump into each other at some point. Animosity is probably going to start tonight, so we’ll be ready to go tonight.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock didn’t think last season’s playoff series was something his team was thinking about going into the game. He described the Blackhawks-Blues’ rivalry as a healthy one.
“I think teams move on from that,” Hitchcock said. “I just think there’s a healthy respect. I think there’s a real healthy respect on both sides. Both teams play the game really honestly. Both teams have a 5-on-5 sound foundation in their game.
“I think there’s a healthy competitive respect. Sure, there’s players on their team we don’t like, and they don’t like guys on our team, but at the end of the day, I think both teams play such an honest game. Every game is like a playoff game. If you looked at other than the very last game of the regular season in Chicago, we had playoff games every time we played them. It’s really good competition.”
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville also looked at the big picture with Saturday’s game. The Blackhawks and Blues are expected to compete for the Central Division crown again, and there are points to be won.
“It’s always meaningful where the standings are, implications early in the year all of a sudden develop later in the year,” Quenneville said. “And you say, oh, that was a big three-point game and what could have been sometimes four-point games. I think they got off to a difficult start, but we know they’re going to be one of the top teams in our division at the end of the day. This is a big game early on in the season. You feel passion in the stands. You feel the rivalry is definitely there. And you play a playoff series, and it just enhances that atmosphere.”