The Blackhawks and Blues have been leaving each other black and blue for decades — history and hatred intertwining and weaving a colorful story between the two geographical neighbors. But until last spring, St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock found it all too one-sided to be a true rivalry. The Hawks had won three Stanley Cups in the modern era. The Blues had nothing, save for a semblance of a moral victory in a hard-fought first-round series in 2014.

“I don’t think it was a rivalry until we won last year,” Hitchcock said before Wednesday’s season-opener between the two teams. “We can talk how well we played [in 2014] when we lost in six, but we still lost. I’m hopeful that we got their attention by winning last year, but now it becomes a little bit more of a playing rivalry instead of just all talk. We had to win a series for this thing to change a little bit. Otherwise, it’s just two cities playing each other. Now there’s two teams, two good teams, going at it. And hopefully we got a little bit of respect back.”

The sting of April’s Game 7 loss in St. Louis lingered for a while for the Hawks, who scattered for the summer nearly two months earlier than usual. Wednesday’s season opener is just Game 1 of 82, but it still carries plenty of weight for both sides. And Jonathan Toews said the Hawks have used that first-round loss to fuel them in the preseason.

“Why not?” he said. “Why not use whatever you can as motivation? Starting off against St. Louis, it’s a good reminder for us to kind of not forget what we went through and how we went down in Game 7. They’ll be hungry, too. Obviously both teams want to prove themselves again. It’s another year. Obviously a long way to go before we get back to playoff hockey again. But these games, they’re always going to be important.”

There will be no easing into the new season for the Hawks, who are using six rookies in the lineup. They start with three games in four days, including a home-and-home against the Nashville Predators — perhaps the Central Division favorite — on Friday and Saturday.

“We might as well get right into it,” Toews said. “We know there’s going to be tough games all year, and games that we’ll have to be especially prepared for, so why not start with three in four against two division rivals? It’ll be tough, but we’ll be ready for it.”

The Central Division has been the NHL’s toughest for a couple of years now. But with the Predators loading up, the Minnesota Wild bringing in new coach Bruce Boudreau, the Winnipeg Jets improved with rookie sniper Patrik Laine, and the Colorado Avalanche featuring a new coach in Jared Bednar, it could be better than ever.

So every game counts. Even the ones in mid-October.

“I look at the conference, everything’s squished now,” Hitchcock said. “The teams that were lower in the standings or missed the playoffs have all improved, they’ve made big changes on a lot of those teams. I think it’s going to be a dogfight to get in the playoffs, even if you won the division. I don’t think there’s going to be much of a difference between first and last in each division. It’s going to be so hard this year to get in the playoffs. We’ve all got our work cut out.”
Twitter: @marklazerus