Commentary

Can Blues measure up to Hawks?

Early test presents opportunity for pair of Central Division powers

Updated: October 9, 2013, 12:28 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

An 82-game schedule is a line that extends clear out of sight.

Taken in its entirety, it can be overwhelming, even if your team is playing well or, even worse, if it's not.

That's why most NHL coaches break the schedule into digestible chunks, a week at a time or segments of three or five games. It helps keep the goals in view and makes adjustments, at least in theory, easier to make.

[+] Enlarge Joel Quenneville
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJoel Quenneville's team remained mostly intact after last season's Stanley Cup run.
But within those smaller chunks, there will be moments that stand out, moments that make you say, "Oh, I wonder how that will go." And so it is now, just a week into the NHL's meandering path toward mid-April, with Wednesday's matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues generating great interest.

Trust us, the Blues and Hawks have perked up their ears at this early Central Division clash. Each team has yet to lose in regulation, and there is almost universal consensus that the two represent the cream of the revamped Central Division crop. The onus, of course, is on the Blackhawks to prove there is no Stanley Cup hangover and that they are worthy of the talk of them becoming the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98.

Chicago general manager Stan Bowman has done a masterful job keeping the core of his team together after Cup wins in 2010 and 2013, needing only to fill things in around the edges of his lineup this offseason.

The changes have been subtle, with more opportunities presented to guys like Rookie of the Year nominee Brandon Saad -- who leads the team with two goals and two assists -- and Andrew Shaw, who is averaging 17:00 of ice time in the early going. Young Swede Joakim Nordstrom was a surprise addition to the roster and is working with Marcus Kruger on the team's penalty-killing unit, which lost key component Michael Frolik to Winnipeg in the offseason.

Bowman told us during training camp he felt it was important to lean on homegrown talent rather than searching the free-agent pool, and Wednesday will mark the team's most significant challenge of this young NHL season.

The Blues, meanwhile, are on a different journey of self-discovery after being bounced in the first round of the playoffs after taking a 2-0 lead against the Los Angeles Kings. Hosting Chicago will mark the first big stop on that journey.

"They have a lot of knowledge, and we're seeking that knowledge," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com.

This is the first Blues team ever -- and the first in the NHL since 1991 -- to have 10 different goal scorers over the first two games of the season. That stat suggests the kind of depth the Blues feel they need to put a dent in Chicago's repeat hopes and suggests the kind of personnel most teams wish for but simply do not have the wherewithal to put on the ice.

The Blues' four forward lines "are as strong as anybody's in the NHL," national analyst Darren Pang told ESPN.com this week. "A lot of teams, quite frankly, don't have that kind of depth."

But it's not just about scoring goals. It's about how the goals happen, with Hitchcock challenging his players to become 200-foot players. The coaching staff has reinforced that last season's disappointment won't be washed away by one player stepping forward and taking the team to the next level, Hitchcock said. Instead, the coaching staff told the team everyone needed to be 10 percent better all over the ice.

"The players have bought into the sense of urgency to get it done," Hitchcock said.

The Blues' special teams are off to a good start, which bodes well for a team that has believed for a couple of years that it is poised to take the next step.

"We're getting a lot of momentum from our special teams right now," Hitchcock said, noting that a 7-0 blowout win over Florida was a one-goal game until the Blues killed off a few penalties and took over the game.

[+] EnlargeAlex Pietrangelo
AP Photo/Bill BoyceAlex Pietrangelo has keyed the Blues' improvement along the blue line.
The team added center Derek Roy and Brenden Morrow, who have been playing with Chris Stewart, and Pang has noticed the blue line has become more active, jumping into the play and making strong passes out of the zone.

Key defensive figure Alex Pietrangelo has started strong and has three assists in two games.

"He's all over the ice, really moving his feet. He's really involved," Pang said.

Pietrangelo signed a seven-year contract extension worth $45.5 million in the offseason, and he said the coaching staff's message that the team has to be better all over the ice has been constant and consistent.

"It was addressed in training camp. They addressed the 200-foot game over and over," Pietrangelo said.

While the Blues are built differently than Chicago, more like a hybrid between the Blackhawks and the physical Boston Bruins -- whom the Blackhawks defeated in six compelling games in the Stanley Cup finals in June -- Pang sees the Blues being able to take a page from the Chicago playbook by moving the puck more quickly from zone to zone, especially with players like Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester on the back end.

Still, the Blackhawks are the gold standard in the art of transitioning from defense to offense.

"They're just not afraid to go north in a hurry," Pang said of the Blackhawks.

Pietrangelo said the contract hasn't changed his focus one iota, even if the security of not having to worry about where he'll be plying his trade the next seven years is comforting.

"I have to help this team win. I know it sounds cliché," said Pietrangelo, who is also vying to be part of the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi in 2014.

Pietrangelo acknowledged the Blues thought they were ready to make the leap last season, but it didn't work out. Now the challenge is to address those areas that separate the Blues from teams like Chicago as the season moves along.

No time like the present to see just how close the two teams might be. Most games against Chicago are close games, Pietrangelo noted.

"They're not easy games to play," he said, "but they're fun games to be a part of."

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