Coach Joel Quenneville has been talking about ‘‘playing spoiler’’ for weeks now, grasping at straws and playing on his players’ egos to find something to get his out-of-contention Blackhawks fired up.
But this isn’t the old days. Hockey players aren’t mortal nemeses. They spend their summers working out with their opponents. They hang out at each other’s summer cottages. Zdeno Chara even attended Marian Hossa’s Stanley Cup party in 2013, barely two months after Hossa’s Hawks beat Chara’s Bruins. So the idea of playing spoiler seems dated, if not downright hokey.
But the Blues? No, the Hawks don’t like the Blues. And they very much would like to ruin their season.
‘‘It’d be nice to see them miss the playoffs,’’ winger Patrick Kane said. ‘‘So it would be nice to have a hand in that.’’
The Hawks all but hold the Blues’ fate in their hands. They play them Wednesday in St. Louis and Friday at the United Center. The games mean everything to the Blues, who entered play Monday one point behind the Avalanche for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Therefore, they mean a lot to the Hawks, too.
‘‘That’s a team we have history with,’’ captain Jonathan Toews said. ‘‘There’s not much on the line for us, but definitely one of the things in our mind is trying to cause an upset.’’
Defenseman Erik Gustafsson almost saw his Hawks career end against the Blues after his gaffe led to Troy Brouwer’s game-winning goal in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series in 2016. Gustafsson since has clawed his way back to the NHL, and while the teams have played only twice this season, the rivalry is still very real in his mind.
‘‘I don’t like them,’’ Gustafsson said with a laugh. ‘‘It’s a fun team to play against, though. There’s always a lot of hits and scrums after every [whistle]. We have that kind of irritating [rivalry] with them, so it’s fun.’’
Defenseman Connor Murphy wasn’t around for the 2014 and 2016 playoff series, which marked the peak of the modern Blues-Hawks
rivalry. But once you put on a Hawks sweater, it doesn’t take long to get a sense of how your longer-tenured teammates feel about the Blues.
Besides, even if that hard-earned hatred wasn’t there, there’s still something to be said for playing spoiler. Beyond the bitterness of ruining someone else’s summer, there’s a much simpler motivation.
‘‘You’re competitive, so you don’t want other teams to be feeling good about themselves after they play you,’’ Murphy said. ‘‘You just don’t want to be the reason a team’s celebrating and getting in.’’
Murphy got a taste of that a couple of weeks ago, when the Hawks squandered leads of 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 before giving up a late goal and losing in overtime. It was a massive victory for the Blues, and they justifiably celebrated like it.
‘‘They were celebrating like crazy,’’ Murphy said. ‘‘We got three leads in that game, and they were playing as hard as they could. It was a playoff-type game to try to get that win. So it shows how much it means to them beating us. So it’s the same thing both ways.’’
Maybe it’s a little petty. Maybe it’s a little artificial, merely a desperate attempt to find meaning in a meaningless game.
Or maybe these guys really just don’t like each other.
‘‘You’re just out there trying to win a game,’’ Gustafsson said. ‘‘But, of course, it’s always fun to drag someone else down, too.’’
NOTES: Jonathan Toews (upper body) is likely to return to the lineup Wednesday, but John Hayden (upper body) likely will not. The Hawks also recalled goalie Jeff Glass and assigned goalie Collin Delia to Rockford of the AHL.
Glass, a Masterton Trophy nominee for his perseverance and dedication to the sport, is 3-6-3 with an .898 save percentage in 14 appearances.