Game Time: 7:30PM
TV/Radio: CSN, WGN-AM 720
Toasted Ravs, Man: SLGT
Tonight’s game between the Hawks and Blues is being labeled a playoff preview by all of the flapping heads around the league, and in one sense, that’s not accurate at all given the number of injuries on both sides that will surely answer the bell this time next week, as well as the fact that this first round matchup is anything but a foregone conclusion. And in that respect tonight already is a playoff game unto itself. Should the Blues gain a single point, they will clinch some form of home ice and the Hawks will be locked into third in the Central. However a Hawks regulation win still keeps them in position for home ice if not the division, depending on the outcome of Stars/Avs. The Hawks would still need some help from the Preds and/or Capitals on Saturday, but they still have to close out their regular season home schedule properly tonight to give themselves a chance.
The Blues come into tonight’s penultimate regular season game having done very Blues things all year long. They are a solid possession team at 52.0 % (50.9 on the road), however are only middling in the number of 5v5 attempts they give up (54.5) when away from DrinkScotch, which means they trade more chances than Baron Harkkonen behind the bench would prefer when he can’t get his matchups. They’ve gotten excellent goaltending from Brian Elliott as he is wont to do in the regular season, with a league best .931 save percentage in 40 appearances and 36 starts. He’s battled injuries and it was Jay Gallon’s job to lose, but Brian Elliott continues to thrive in West East St. Louis with the way that they limit quality chances, at least from October through April.
Injuries have plagued the Blues all season long, and right now there are still a few that are lingering. CAPTAIN David Backes will not play tonight or against Washington, and Steve Ott is out with colitis which is the most appropriate thing ever. The shifty Robby Fabbri is a gametime decision tonight after not taking the optional skate today. The primary threat as always is Vlad Tarasenko, presently separated from Jaden Schwartz opposite Alex Steen and centered by Jori Lehtera. However the big development has been Paul Stastny has rising from the dead, with 17 points in 15 games since March 1. He’ll be flanked by old friend Troy Brouwer and potentially Fabbri or Magnus Pajaarvi. Schwartz will be on the left of Patrik Berglund. And even without Ott, the Blues still have a fourth line filled with Garbage Pail Kids in Ryan Reaves, Kyle Brodziak, and “A Presumed Adult Named Scottie” Upshall.
On defense Jabe O’Meester is also a gametime decision, leaving his usual partner of Pietrangelo potentially with bag of hammers Joel Edmundson, and either way there isn’t a lot of push coming from that unit, as even when Bouwmeester plays he and Petro tend to absorb the opposition’s top lines and don’t flip the ice on them. That’s the job of Kevin Shattenkirk, who gets the most favorable zone starts among Blues defensemen. Shat is far more of a danger on the power play however, with 26 of his 43 points coming on the advantage. After a hot scoring start Colton Burpo cooled off but still leads the Blues in 5v5 share on the back end at 55% slaying bums from the third pairing, and his shotgunny tendencies make Trevor Daley look like Rod Langway.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, they’ll have to get things accomplished tonight with one less contributor than on Tuesday, as Artem Anisimov will miss tonight’s game and likely Saturday’s after the hit he took from Antoine Vermette. That will push Teuvo up with Panarin and Garbage Dick, and gives everyone another look at the Andrew Desjardins Center Experience rather than the reinsertion of Dr. Rasmussen. The free lineup spot will go to none other than Prodigal Son Bryan Bickell, back from the land of Beef A Roo and telecommunications sex crimes. Fellow stepchild Dale Wiese will be opposite Bickell, and it will now be Marcus Kruger and Tomas Fleischmann’s turn to be saddled with Millstone Manshitter.
The defensive pairings remain unchanged, and Hjalmarsson and Teflon Van Riemsdyk will likely get the Tarasenko assignment, which leaves Post-2010 Val Kilmer and Viktor Montross to either have to worry about Stastny or Schwartz, and potentially Fabbri as well. Scott Darling gets what is hopefully his last start of the season tonight.
While Marcus Kruger has apparently solved the penalty kill with his magical presence (nevermind the fact that the Hawks have played almost exclusively dog ass teams since his return), it’s still best to not tempt fate by giving the Blues any more opportunities than are necessary on the power play. Because the Hawks run a low-pressure kill, Shattenkirk has the skill and vision to absolutely pick it apart, and Schwartz and Tarasenko can make the less-than-agile Scott Darling move laterally and open up a gaping five hole. While the Blues only need a point, given how bad the Hawks defensive corps is, expect Coach Horsey Sauce to give his forwards free rein to forecheck down low even on the road, since the Hawks don’t have a defenseman in the lineup capable of sidestepping that kind of pressure. It will be imperative for all wingers to not evacuate the defensive zone as well to assist in breakouts, as there will be space behind those Blues forwards. This is especially true for Panarin and Fuckface, who have been feasting on terrible teams lately and might feel the urge to get into party mode at the other end a little too quickly.
It’s been a foregone conclusion since about mid October that the Hawks’ playoff seeding fate would come down to this game, and it basically does. They can’t grab home ice outright, but they can certainly lose it. And the unwashed masses still seem to believe that despite both qualitative and quantitative reasoning to the contrary, that this team can still be functional when it matters. Well, whether this team admits it or not, home ice matters, and therefore this game matters. Prove it or don’t.