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updated: 4/14/2014 5:28 AM

Blackhawks to face Blues in first round of playoffs

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  • Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford blocks a shot by the St. Louis Blues' Jaden Schwartz in a game from last October. The Hawks and Blues will face each other in the first round of the playoffs, beginning Thursday.

      Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford blocks a shot by the St. Louis Blues' Jaden Schwartz in a game from last October. The Hawks and Blues will face each other in the first round of the playoffs, beginning Thursday.
    Associated Press

  • Goalie Ryan Miller and the Blues are next up for the Blackhawks, the first-round playoff series starting Thursday night at St. Louis.

      Goalie Ryan Miller and the Blues are next up for the Blackhawks, the first-round playoff series starting Thursday night at St. Louis.
    Associated Press

 
 

A couple of weeks ago it looked like there was no way.

Even just a week ago it was still a far-flung possibility at best.

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Well, the unthinkable has happened.

Somehow, some way, the Blackhawks will begin their title defense against St. Louis on Thursday night. The matchup was settled Sunday when the Blues dropped a 3-0 decision to visiting Detroit.

St. Louis' sixth straight loss, combined with the red-hot play of Colorado down the stretch, means the Avs are your Central Division champions -- something even Hawks coach Joel Quenneville couldn't have imagined. In fact, just about a week ago he called a first-round matchup against Colorado "inevitable."

"Could be completely wrong," Quenneville said recently when it started to appear that the race would indeed go down to the wire. "I might have used that word prematurely. I waited a long time to use it, as well."

St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock was in the same boat as Quenneville.

"I don't think either team anticipated this," Hitchcock told reporters Sunday. "I don't think either team really loves playing each other. It should make for a heck of a series."

Now that the matchup is etched in stone, the question is what's up with a Blues team that not only has lost six straight but has only managed to score 5 goals over that span? Sure, they've been without some of their stars lately -- like David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo -- but it's hard to ignore the way they've been reeling.

"We redlined most of the year, but we ran out of gas," Hitchcock said. "This (break before Game 1) gives us a chance to retool, refocus and get some rest."

But, still, with the way the Blues played the last two weeks, keeping his players upbeat heading into the series against the Hawks won't be an easy task for the Blues coach.

"Yeah, that's going to be a challenge," Hitchcock admitted. "That's why I'm coach. That's my job.

"The big picture is we set a record in points; we had a brutal stretch here at the end. Teams that had Olympians had a period of time when they hit the wall.

"Chicago's stretch was right after the break; ours happened now. We got caught in a vortex, just like the two or three teams that had (Olympians) got caught in a vortex, too."

While the Hawks await the return of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Hitchcock said he expects all his injured players to see ice time during this series, a series Hitchcock can't wait to get started.

"This is the greatest time," he said. "I said to the players today, 'There are 300 players who would die for what we get to do starting Monday morning. We get to prepare for the playoffs.'

"We're going to need to dislodge any of the negative momentum from what happened here the last in the last 10 days. Living in the fear of Chicago and their skill level will get our attention right away."

mspellman@dailyherald.com

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