With all due respect for the other three NHL games tonight – OK, maybe not for Nashville at Vancouver – the most important game will be contested at the United Center in Chicago when the St. Louis Blues play their third game this season against the Chicago Blackhawks.
It will be the most compelling game on the slate on a number of fronts. The first of which is a win by the Blues will give them 103 points and make them the first team in the NHL this season to punch their ticket to the post-season. As it was explained to me by resident numbers guru Randy Robles at Elias Sports Bureau, the Blues can clinch with 103 despite the fact that the eighth-place Phoenix Coyotes, with 77 points in 69 games, and the ninth-place Dallas Stars, with 75 points in 68 games, stand a mathematical chance of earning 103 points and having more regulation and overtime wins than the Blues if they win all their remaining games and the Blues lose all their remaining games.
Well, not exactly, said Robles. “Either Phoenix or Dallas can top out at 103, but both of them can’t,” he said. “Because they play each other on the last day of the season and one of them is going to drop at least a point, which would put one of them at 103 and the other at 102.”
More importantly, though, tonight features the defending Stanley Cup champion against the team many think will be the Stanley Cup champion in 2014. The Blues will be eager to assert themselves against a team that they could face, at the latest, in the second round of the playoffs. And the Blackhawks will be just as eager to get into the win column against the Blues after three straight losses this season.
But despite the Blues 3-0 mark against the Blackhawks, the difference between the two teams has been razor-thin. All three games have been decided by one goal, with two of them going to shootouts. The fact that the teams haven’t met in more than two months should add a little to the intrigue.
On Oct. 9, the Blues won 3-2 in regulation when Alexander Steen scored with just 22 seconds remaining in the game. Eight days later, the Blues topped the Blackhawks in a shootout when – who else? – T.J. Oshie provided the winner in the skills contest.
But it’s the game Dec. 28 that is probably still sticking in the Blackhawks craw. In that game, they blew three two-goal leads, including giving up two goals in the final four minutes, before the Blues prevailed once again in a shootout.
Also on the line in this game is the Blues mind-boggling record of 20-0-2 against Central Division opponents. After tonight, the Blues have six games remaining against divisional opponents, including one more game in Chicago on April 6.
This will also be the first time the Blackhawks get a glimpse of Ryan Miller in the Blues net. And it’s not as though they have an extensive book on him. Miller has played against the Blackhawks just four times during his career, compiling a 2-2 record. The Calgary Flames, whom Miller has faced four times as well, are the only other team in the league that has seen as little of Miller as the Blackhawks have.
Prediction: The Blackhawks will are great at home and the Blues are great on the road, but the Blackhawks will ride the home crowd to hand the Blues their first regulation defeat this season.