One team is sticking with its streaking goaltender, the other is expected to let a 27-year-old free agent make his NHL debut. One team has an injured defenseman who might try to talk his way into the lineup, the other has lineup regulars who may not make the trip to St. Louis.
For the Blues, tonight’s 7 p.m. face-off at Scottrade Center has a lot of relevance. For the visiting Chicago Blackhawks, winners of the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s most points, it’s just the final date on the regular-season calendar.
The Blues, already in the playoffs, could be celebrating the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference at the end of the night. Beat the Blackhawks and the spot becomes a reality, as does opening Round 1 of the postseason at home — where they have won five in a row.
Lose and face the potential of a trip to the West Coast for Games 1-2.
“It’s an important game,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “You move on after the game one way or another, but it’s an important game. It’s two good teams.
“Chicago is arguably the best team in a long time in the league. We’re going to have to be at our best to win the hockey game, but I think it’s a fun game to finish the season with. It’s obviously more important for us than it is for them.”
The Blues will start goalie Brian Elliott, who won his 10th game in April on Thursday. And there’s a chance that defenseman Barret Jackman, who missed Thursday’s game because of an ankle injury, could be in the lineup.
Jackman skated Friday and Hitchcock indicated a decision about his availability would be made this morning.
Chicago is expected to counter in goal with netminder Carter Hutton, an undrafted free-agent signed last summer who has never played in the NHL.
Meanwhile on Friday, the Blackhawks promoted nine players from their American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford, Ill., some of whom could be in the lineup against the Blues.
“We might look at resting some guys,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, whose club will be playing its second game of back-to-back nights and its third game in four nights.
So anyone expecting a highly charged affair like the one there was April 14 at Scottrade Center, when Chicago beat the Blues 2-0, or in the Blues’ 4-3 shootout win over the Blackhawks on April 4 in Chicago, might have the bar set too high.
But several players on the Blues’ side said Friday that they would not be factoring the opposing roster into their preparation, and at least one ’Hawk still has plans of winning.
“I don’t think we have to be concerned about what they’re doing,” Blues defenseman Jordan Leopold said. “We’re in a position that if we come out and play our game and do the things we know that we’re capable of, we’re going to be able to get two points and that equals being in fourth place and having home-ice advantage’’ in the first round.
“It’s a great opportunity for us and I think all of us are ready and aware for that challenge. Whatever the lineup may be for them, it’s really insignificant for how we need to play and how we need to get those points.”
Jay Bouwmeester, another of the Blues’ newly acquired defensemen, added: “No matter what, the way (Chicago) plays, you’re going to play a certain way. They’ve got a lot of dangerous guys. It’s a game you look at, they’re on a back-to-back and we’re at home here. I think if we play the right way, we’ll give ourselves a good chance.”
The Blues have won 11 of their last 14 games, including five of six since their shutout loss to Chicago two weeks ago.
“They’re a good team,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. “They always like to play physical against us and kind of run us out of the building. Against them I think you just have to be smart and disciplined and play our game. There’s going to be plays and scrums after the whistle where maybe they might hit you late or something like that.
“Let them do that, let them try to think that’s the way to win the game but keep the puck from them all game and try not to give them too many chances like we have before throughout the year and maybe win the game 2-0 or 3-0. It’s different situations for both teams. You still want to go in and play your best and see what happens and try to win the game.”
If the Blues beat Chicago, they would host the winner of Saturday’s late game between San Jose and Los Angeles.
The Blues had home-ice advantage against San Jose in the first round last season and routed the Sharks four games to one. That series victory advanced them to Round 2, in which they were swept by LA.
If they lose in regulation tonight, the Blues could be opening on the road against San Jose or Los Angeles. There’s also a scenario in which they could fall to No. 6 and open a series in Vancouver.
“To be able to start at home would be a big thing if you look at the position we were in just a couple days ago,” Bouwmeester said. “To have that opportunity is big. Everyone knows the importance. This year it starts real quick, maybe playing on Tuesday, and if you have to go all the way out there, that’s a lot of travel. You’re a lot better off making a team come here.”
It’s all in the Blues’ hands.