Hockey

Game #27 – Blues vs. Hawks Preview: A New World

vs

RECORDS: Blues 17-5-6   Hawks 10-11-5

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

GOOD GOD DON’T GO THERE: St. Louis Gametime

Like any adversarial relationship, or really any relationship that goes for a long time, there are different phases to it. The Hawks and Blues have had theirs. They were scraping for bottom of the barrel rewards in the 80s together. They were playoff rivals in the early 90s, each with hopes of breaking through the post-Oilers scene (never did). Both were hapless background pieces to the Wings, either in the mid- or late 90s. Both have been unequipped batting practice for the other at times, for instance the Pronger-era Blues were far ahead of the Hawks and obviously what came before here not so long ago. Both have been mud people at the same time.

We thought we’d permanently left them behind this decade. That’s the arrogance that comes from multiple championships. But you can never leave something like this behind. It’s always there, even if you have to squint, and it’s always a reminder of what you truly are. It feels like getting hit with a large fish in the face when you realize that, but here we are. Last spring was a reminder that some things are always like this, no matter how it might look.

And now it’s reversed. The Blues are in the sunshine, seemingly clicking everywhere, seemingly have figured out when everyone had assumed they never could. That it would always be that way. And the Hawks are the ones with their shoes tied together, valuing all the wrong things with an inability to take any step forward. Oh sure, maybe it’s only been two seasons like this, instead of the seven or eight we enjoyed laughing at the unwashed down I-55. But it’s gone now, isn’t it? Oh yes, yes it is.

So the Blues will show up for the first time this season tonight, with their unfathomable champions pedigree and their first place standing now and the added arrogance not just of having done all that, but of having done it when no one ever thought they could. These aren’t the Blues you remember, and it’s likely they will never be again. We’ve lost something. They’ve gained something, and that is truly world-shattering. They’re 15 points ahead of the Hawks.

The Hawks are 15 points behind, five points out of a playoff spot, and one point ahead of the basement of the entire damn conference. Has anything moved forward? Does it feel like it will anytime soon? Aren’t the questions all the same as they were before? The lack of answers sure are. This is supposed to be them. It was them. And we figured it would be them forever. Because it felt like it would be, when it was and we weren’t. We had all the answers before there were questions. And then in a flash it reversed, and now we’re the laughingstock in the relationship. “Look at how far behind they are,” they crow, and rightly. The gap is bordering on a gorge.  Cruel world.

Anyway, on the ground, the Blues are in first but in some ways they’re a lot like the Hawks. They’re not a great possession team. They get great goaltending and they’re getting some fine finishing from more sources than the local outfit. They’re still pretty good defensively, in that they hold down attempts, shots, chances among the better teams in the league. They don’t create much, but with the way Jordan Binnington is playing they don’t have to. The more you suppress shots and attempts the more games come down to a moment or two. And when your goalie is better most nights, you’ll win most nights. When you allow chances and attempts to flow like and Elvin-conjured river, you make it more likely that results will match what the teams are. That’s how you get the Hawks, no matter how good the goalies are.

Of course, the Blues are here without their main sniper in Vladimir Tarasenko, who might not play again in the regular season. They’re also without Alex Steen, which doesn’t mean much these days, and Oskar Sundqvist, which is somewhere in the middle. In their absence, Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, and Brayden Schenn have fucked off just like they did last spring that landed us in this mess. Alex OrangeJello seems intent on having a true free agent year, and Jayden Schwartz is actually healthy. Imagine what happens when Justin Faulk actually gets comfortable. Fuck this life.

Anyway, to the Hawks, who will be without Duncan Keith, Dylan Strome, and now Robin Lehner as well as Andrew Shaw tonight. Lehner has the flu, which is a strange code for telling his teammates they suck on the bench and being given a day or two to calm down, even though he’s right. Without Keith, and he really shouldn’t matter this much, the Hawks roll out an AHL defense behind Connor Murphy. And we already said Connor Murphy shouldn’t matter this much either. Oh, did we mention they’ll have to do the same against the best line in hockey Thursday? On the road? ONE GOAL.

Because of all of this, the Hawks will skate one player short due to cap constraints, with the recalling of Kevin Lankinen putting them up against it. Real tight ship, here. A cap team that’s one point above the West basement. Everything’s fine. They have a process. They know what they’re doing. Everything is on course.

It won’t take more than four minutes for Pat and Eddie to comment on the Blues “grit” and the forecheck the Hawks apparently want to emulate without realizing what they’re actually talking about. The Blues can get in your shirt because they’re actually really quick. It’s not just about dressing psychopaths, which used to be their M.O. They upgraded the speed, and with Pietrangelo, Faulk, Colton Burpo, they’re mobile enough on the blue line to not worry if their forwards occasionally get beat. They defense can just step up behind it. The Hawks d-men can’t. So you get what the Avs did to them, which is streak to an odd-man whenever they felt like it. And failing that, they could just wait for that moment when four Hawks were trying to find the Big Dipper in their own zone and tralalala their way down the slot. The Blues are no more stupid than the Avs are.

The season is almost certainly already toast, but it’s for sure going to be if the Hawks don’t ace December. They can rant and rave all they want about where the Blues were on New Year’s Day last year, but that team was built to contend and needed to fire a coach who was clearly a moron and everyone knew it to get where they were supposed to be (say there’s an idea). This might be where the Hawks are supposed to be. Starting the month off with the two Finalists isn’t exactly cherry. The rest of the slate isn’t either.

The difference between the two might not any clearer after tonight, or at the end of the month. You’ll just have to wait for the day when the relationship shifts again. It might be a long way off.

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