Blackhawks win physical battle with Blues

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ST. LOUIS — For the second time in eight days, Jonathan Toews went after an opponent and dropped the gloves. And this time, he really meant it.

After seeing Blues captain David Backes plaster Niklas Hjalmarsson into the boards behind the net in the first period Saturday night, Toews challenged Backes with a shove to the chest. And Backes, who was briefly knocked out of the game by an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit by Toews earlier in the game, was happy to accept. The two went at it in a much more aggressive fight than the one Toews had with New Jersey’s Adam Henrique last week, which was largely designed to wake up his teammates.

“He’s an unbelievable leader,” Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “And he knows exactly what to do, what to say, whether it’s in the locker room or the on the ice.”

The Toews-Backes fight set the tone for a wild 4-2 Hawks victory in front of a raucous, split-down-the-middle crowd (with the Bears in town for Sunday’s game against the Rams, the usual Chicago contingent was bigger and louder than ever). There were big hits, big saves, cheap shots, and countless post-whistle scrums, particularly in a testy second period. The two bitter rivals won’t face each other again for more than two months. That’s probably a good thing for each team’s physical well-being. But from an entertainment standpoint, it’s too bad.

“It seems like every game against these guys is high-intensity,” Duncan Keith said.

More importantly for the Hawks, it was one of their best team games of the year. Aside from playing into the Blues hands a bit during the out-of-control, penalty-laden second period, the Hawks looked like a different team than the one that has stumbled a bit out of the gate. They got contributions from different lines, with Andrew Shaw scoring by tipping a Keith shot, and van Riemsdyk scoring off a Marian Hossa setup. And they got a big boost from the back end with Keith and Michal Rozsival finally returning to the lineup in a big way. Keith played a season-high 27:34 less than four weeks after knee surgery. And Rozsival provided a steady 13:20.

Joel Quenneville said the lift the Hawks got from the returning veterans was noticeable.

“You could see the energy in our team in the morning skate and before the game,” he said. “Good enthusiasm throughout, good hockey game, great pace. I don’t know if we budgeted [Keith] for 27, but I didn’t see a complaint.”

The game was rough from the outset, as Joel Edmundson leveled Teuvo Teravainen with an illegal hit to the head just 71 seconds into the game. After Shaw’s goal, the intensity picked up for good in the final minute of the first. First, Hossa was denied by Jake Allen on a breakaway. Then, Backes drilled Hossa in the corner. After that, Toews went after Backes with a shoulder-to-shoulder hit, but their helmets collided first. A big scrum ensued, and things escalated during a wild second period.

A league source said the NHL’s department of player safety was taking a long look at both the Toews hit on Backes, and the Backes hit on Hjalmarsson. It’s unclear yet if there will be any fines or suspensions. For Toews, it will depend on if Backes put himself in a vulnerable position at the last second, and if the head or the chest/shoulder was the principal point of contact. For Backes, it will depend on the angle of the hit that sent Hjalmarsson into the glass.

After the Toews-Backes fight (Hjalmarsson briefly left the ice, but returned), Vladimir Tarasenko scored two goals to give the Blues a 2-1 lead, the second coming on the power play after Marko Dano boarded Robby Fabbri. Van Riemsdyk tied it at 15:17 of the second, pouncing on a loose puck created by Hossa. Allen then made what might be the save of the year, falling to his right and snaring a Dano shot with an outstretched glove. The puck was awfully close to crossing the goal line, anyway, but the NHL said replays “confirmed” it was not a goal. The Hawks, obviously, disagreed.

But moments later, with the Hawks on another power play, Patrick Kane scored off an Artemi Panarin pass to give the Hawks a 3-2 lead.

“That’s not a team that you’re going to push over and they’re just going to sit down,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “I think they answered.”

The manic energy didn’t carry over to the third, and the Hawks didn’t even manage a shot on goal for the first 15 minutes. But they staved off relentless Blues pressure and held on — with the help of an Artem Anisimov empty-netter with 47 seconds left — for a morale-boosting win, their first against a Central Division opponent this season.

It snapped a five-game road losing streak for the Hawks.

“Anytime you can come into this building against this team and get a win on the road is huge,” van Riemsdyk said.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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