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Playoff preview? Hawks-Blues showdown at UC loaded with intrigue

Blackhawks left wing Andrew Ladd redirects a shot past Blues goaltender Jake Allen on March 9, 2016. | Chris Lee/AP

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is in playoff mode already. Even when discussing his personal disappointment in a subpar season — he is on a pace for career-lows in assists per game and points per game —  he sounded ready to move on to the postseason.

“It was at times frustrating,” Toews said of his 2015-16 regular season, which still has two games to go. “It is what it is. I’ve obviously got to assess my game and look at ways I can improve and produce more consistently over 82 games.

“The best news is I have a great chance at playing my best hockey of the year. That’s always my focus — trying to trend upwards as the playoffs come around. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m excited for that opportunity and I think every one in this [locker] room probably thinks the same way.”

With five victories in their last six games, the Hawks seem ready to move onto the playoffs and deal with whatever scenario ensues — regardless of who they play and whether or not they have home-ice advantage. Still, their showdown with the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night at the United Center has a bit of intrigue on several levels:

  • The Hawks (47-26-7, 101 points) still can beat out the Blues (48-23-9, 105 points) for second-place in the Central Division and home-ice for a first-round playoff matchup by beating the Blues in regulation tonight, then beating the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Saturday while the Blues lose in regulation at home to the Capitals, who will have nothing to play for.
  • Even if the Hawks finish third in the Central Division, they can still leave a calling card for the playoffs with a convincing victory that reminds the Blues — who have lost in the first-round of the playoffs the last three seasons, despite having home-ice advantage — the Hawks are still the Hawks and the Blues are still the Blues.
  • If the Hawks lose to the Blues on Thursday night, it could help bump the Blues into first place in the Central and push the Dallas Stars (43-28-9, 105 points) into second place and a first-round matchup with the Hawks that arguably could be more favorable. The Stars, a potent offensive team with shaky goaltending and defense, might not be built for the postseason — where offense is often muted by tight checking and defense and goaltending are at a premium.
  • As well a the Hawks have played recently, they need to beat a top-tier team. The Hawks haven’t beaten a current playoff team since beating the Red Wings 4-1 on March 6 at the United Center. They have beaten a team playing as well as the Blues since beating the Capitals 3-2 on Feb. 28 at the United Center. Goalie Scott Darling is 6-3-1 in place of injured starter Corey Crawford, but he hasn’t beaten a playoff team since a 3-1 victory over the Penguins on Jan. 6 at the United Center.

Hawks coach Joel Quenneville didn’t seem too concerned that the Hawks need a victory over a proven contender like the Blues, who have won 13 of their last 17 games, including four consecutive shutouts in that span. 

“I think we’ve been better as we’ve gone along here,” Quenneville said. “Whether it’s teams we’re playing or the importance of the game, we’ve made every game challenging.

“It’s an important two games for us — we’ll see how it plays out. Who knows? Anything can happen. There are a lot of different scenarios, some minor compared to the other ones. But we’ll go into that game [against the Blues] and it should be a good test.”

The Hawks are most concerned with maintaining their late-season roll. They’ve scored 17 goals in their last three games, with their top six forwards combining for 14 goals and 15 assists. They’re 6-for-12 on the power play in the last three games and 17-for-17 on the penalty kill in the last six.

The team’s defense, a collective effort with defenseman Duncan Keith suspended the past three games, has been the spark, Toews said.

“I think it’s good to build our confidence in that way [defensively],” Toews said, “that we can play smart at our end and kill penalties and do what we have to do, and we’re going to score goals in different ways.

“It’s a great feeling to have at this time of year, especially having gone through this little rough patch we’ve been through lately [1-4-2 before winning five of six], where things weren’t going so well. But I think we have that confidence and the patience to wait those moments out and just work towards getting our game back. We’re seeing that right now.”

But Toews knows what’s at stake against the Blues.

“[We want to] keep playing the same way we are right now and we’ll remind ourselves that these points matter,” Toews said. “So we use it as another game to prepare ourselves for the playoffs.  We’ll get up for it, because we know they will be.”

As for the opportunity to send a message …

“A little bit of that,” Toews said. “But I think come playoff time, we know we’re going to be looking at one of those teams. It could be [the Blues]. It’ll be a little practice run I guess for whatever we see in the playoffs.”