The Central Division is a little crowded at the top, the chase for first getting as interesting as many figured it would. It’s tight. It’s intense.
“I think it’s great for the league,” Marian Hossa said on Tuesday. “Obviously we would like to have a lead even more. But it’s a competitive game and still lots of games left and we try to finish first.”
The Blackhawks, who have 15 games remaining in their regular season, face tough tests against their closest divisional competitors this week: the St. Louis Blues tonight and the Dallas Stars on Friday. The Stars, following their 4-3 overtime loss to Montreal, moved into first in the Central with 88 points. The Blackhawks are second with 87 points and the Blues are in third with 85 points.
It’s a cliché, certainly, but consider this stretch run the postseason before the postseason.
“We always say we don’t want to be making Game 82 life and death to get in, but if we’re fighting for first place, we still like to get first place. It keeps our attention in the right place,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s a very meaningful road trip, two important games against two important teams as far as where we’re sitting. When we get down to a short number of games, maybe it’s clearer then, but we’ll see.”
Meanwhile, the Blues have weathered plenty of injuries this season. They’re still without forward Alexander Steen and goaltender Brian Elliott. Yet here the Blues are, breathing down the Blackhawks’ necks. Considering the history between the two teams, a fight for first place only intensifies the rivalry.
“We're going to play it like it’s any other game, but we know what’s on the line,” David Backes told the St. Louis media on Tuesday. “And there’s no love lost and there's no needed incentive to get up for the games against Chicago.”
Speaking of injuries, the Blackhawks will be without Hossa (lower body) at least one more game. There was a chance Hossa would be back against the Blues tonight but the right wing said he needs a little bit more time to be 100 percent.
Nevertheless, there’s plenty riding on this last bunch of games. The division race is tight. There’s no better way to prep for the postseason than with a tough stretch heading into it.
“It’s going to be important for us to come out hard tonight,” Andrew Shaw said. “We have some big games coming up against central division teams. It’s a playoff mentality in getting ourselves ready.”