Blackhawks update: Battle with Blues tonight at UC could be playoff preview

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Blues center David Backets mixes it up with Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook in the Hawks 4-1 victory on Dec. 3 at the United Center. (AP)

The Blackhawks’ accelerated push to the playoffs reaches another level tonight at the United Center with the first of two games against the rival St. Louis Blues. The Blues (48-23-7, 103 points) lead the Blackhawks (48-24-6, 102 points) by one point in the Central division, with both teams trailing the first-place Predators (47-22-10, 104 points), with a game in hand.

Though the winner will move into first place in the division, the Blues-Hawks showdown this week is a battle for home-ice advantage in a potential playoff. Both teams have 39 regulation/overtime victories — the first tie-breaker. The Hawks need one point in the two games against the Blues to win the second tie-breaker (points in the final four games of the season series between the teams).

“There’s a lot at stake,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Two points separating the top three teams [in the division]. We’ve got them again in their building with not many games left to go. So we’re going to find out a lot this week.”

And of course, there is the proverbial message to be sent by one team or the other, with a playoff matchup looming. The Hawks overcame home-ice disadvantage to oust the Blues from last year’s playoffs 4-2, by winning Game 5 in St. Louis and Game 6 at the United Center. The Hawks lead the season series 2-1-0, with the Hawks winning the most recent game, 4-2 on Feb. 8 at Scottrade Center.

Quenneville wasn’t so sure about any message-sending impact of these two regular-season games.

“With so much to be sorted out, and there are so many variables, it’s tough to forecast that,” Quenneville said. “Last year we thought we have  a guaranteed Colorado visit in the first round and what happened with us playing St. Louis was surprising. Now there’s a million scenarios that could happen. So [it’s] tough to forecast and tough to play the game like that. I think we’re going to play the game to win and we’ll see what happens down the road.”

With all those variables, it’ll be an exciting final week of the regular season. Here’s how the Hawks stand heading into Sunday night’s game:

1. Veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival will start in place of David Rundblad vs. the Blues and is expected to be in the lineup for the playoff run. The 36-year-old Roszival has one goal, 11 points and a zero plus-minus rating this season and to the naked eye appears to be a liability defensively more often than not. But Quenneville believes in him, which counts most of all.

“He’s been fine all year,” Quenneville said. “I like his experience. I like his position and patience with the puck.”

2. Corey Crawford will start in goal vs. the Blues. Marcus Kruger did not participate in the morning skate, but will play in the game, Quenneville said.

3. With one week left in the regular season, the jury is still out on the impact of Antoine Vermette, Kimmo Timonen and Andrew Desjardins — the three players the Blackhawks acquired in the wake of Patrick Kane’s injury.  Vermette has yet to score a goal (outside of a game-winning shootout goal against the Oilers) and has three assists and is a minus-1 in 15 games with the Hawks.

“A work-in-progress,” Quenneville said. “His last game (against the Sabres) he had some opportunities. Scoring a goal might help him be more confident with the puck. He’s improving as far as the familiarity of the roots and where his line mates are. That’s what we’re looking for — maybe offensively get a goal and being a little more confident in the puck area.”

Quenneville said Vermette likely will be moved back to center “at some time.”

4. With every point counting — especially with a potential tie-breaker at stake — it’s worth noting the Hawks are 14-0-2 in their last 16 games against the Blues at the United Center, including the playoffs. Their only two losses in that span have been in shootouts. The Hawks have not lost in regulation to the Blues at the UC since Feb. 3, 2010 (3-2) — when the Hawks were playing their first home game in 20 days after an eight-game West Coast road trip in the Cristobal Huet era.

If the Blackhawks and Blues finish the season with the same number of points, the first tie-breaker is regulation/overtime victories — both teams currently have 39. The next tie-breaker is head-to-head competition in the final four games of the regular season (with each team having two home games). The Hawks are 2-0-0 with two games to go. If they acquire one point in the next two games, they would win that tie-breaker if needed.

5. For what it’s worth, Quenneville did not rule out Patrick Kane returning during the first round of the playoffs. “Tough to say,” Quenneville said when asked about that possibility. “It’s the same thing we’ve been saying — medical clearance is the hurdle. That kind of gives us an idea of when to rachet up the physicality of it, to get the test. That’s where we’re at.”

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