CHICAGO • There is a theory going around that the winner of the St. Louis Blues-Chicago Blackhawks Western Conference quarterfinal series will be living on borrowed time in the NHL playoffs.
That is, this sadistic series, which has included six overtime sessions in five games, rarely has been separated by more than one goal and has featured a total of 326 hits is extracting a toll. Whichever team wins it — and the ’Hawks are in prime position to do so — won’t live long in the postseason to tell the story.
If there was a home for battered and abused hockey teams, the Blues and Blackhawks would be charter members, welcome to check in at their convenience.
But as the Blackhawks get ready lace ’em up once more with the Blues, holding a 3-2 series lead and hoping to end the slugfest Sunday afternoon at United Center, no one is calling in sick. The Blackhawks are the reigning champions, winners of two Stanley Cups in four years, experienced lump-takers.
They have graduated from the School of Hard Knocks with honors. They know the territory.
“I think even the regular-season games (against the Blues), it almost felt like ... playoff games,” Chicago forward Bryan Bickell said. “Just the new rivalry we have between them the last couple of years, it’s kind of amped the series up.
“And, you know, both teams want to win. I think we were doing whatever it takes to do so. It just makes for some good hockey.”
According to the official statistics, the Blues hit the Blackhawks 54 times on Friday night. But the ’Hawks landed the last big blow — Jonathan Toews’ goal in overtime.
Winning is good for what ails you, and on Saturday, the ’Hawks were feeling no worse for wear.
“It’s so fun to play these kind of games,’’ defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “You don’t really think too much about being tired. Personally I feel great. I can’t complain about being tired at all.
“I think everybody’s just excited to be in the playoffs and play St. Louis — probably the best team we’ve played in the first round since I got here. They’re a pretty complete team over there, so it’s a great series.”
Don’t be mistaken, the ’Hawks know it has been different in a series. Last year, on their way to the Stanley Cup title, they blew by Minnesota in five games in the opening round. They weren’t severely tested until the conference semifinals, when they fell behind Detroit 3-1 and rallied to win.
Against the Blues, who went ahead 2-0 in the series, it’s been a struggle from the start. Every game has been combat and every game takes a physical toll. Both teams had some injury issues before the series began. It’s safe to assume no one is getting healthier. How much is left of the winner for the next round remains to be seen.
“You can see the rivalry is much bigger against St. Louis,” said Chicago’s Marian Hossa, who broke out with his first goal of the series in Game 5. “Obviously, you know, Minnesota was a little bit different last year. Definitely, from Game 1, it’s a high intensity of physical play and some tight games.
“So it’s a little bit different series in the first round than it was last year. It has been so tight. They were a dominating team in the regular season and that’s why the games are so tight, so we would prefer to (clinch) it in (Sunday’s) game. And we know how important it is to win.”
As if things aren’t promising enough for the ’Hawks, they get a boost for Game 6 when defenseman Brent Seabrook returns. Seabrook was suspended for three games for his violent hit to the head of Blues captain David Backes late in Game 2. The Blues were without Backes for Games 3 and 4, but he returned for Game 5.
Seabrook normally teams with Duncan Keith to form one of the top defensive tandems in the league. But the Blues were unable to capitalize on Seabrook’s absence, losing all three games of his suspension. Now they have to deal with a ’Hawks team that figures to be better with one of its top players fresh and back in business.
“I think ‘Seabs’ is definitely one of the best players in this league and what he brings to our team every night is huge,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s obviously going to be huge for us to get him back.”
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville acknowledged the series probably is more than either team bargained for.
“One thing about trying to pick your dance partner in this business, it’s not a good thing,” Quenneville said. “Unfortunately, you look at our division, you have three 100-point teams and how it sorted out probably wasn’t probably how we envisioned it at the end.”
Then again, if Chicago can win Game 6, the end will justify the means.