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updated: 4/16/2014 9:10 PM

Blackhawks prepare to get physical

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  • Tight battles for the pucks like this one between the Blackhawks' Marcus Kruger, right, and the Blues' David Backes start anew in Thursday night's series opener.

      Tight battles for the pucks like this one between the Blackhawks' Marcus Kruger, right, and the Blues' David Backes start anew in Thursday night's series opener.
    Associated Press

 
 

So many questions linger as the Blackhawks prepare their defense of the Stanley Cup with a surprising first-round matchup against St. Louis, a team that once seemed a lock to win the Presidents' Trophy.

For the Blues, questions like, will star players such as David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Vladimir Tarasenko, to name a few, be healthy enough to be factors in this series? Will St. Louis' slide (losses in the final six games) have a hangover effect in this series?

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The Hawks are not without questions of their own heading into Game 1 on Thursday at the Scottrade Center (7 p.m.).

After a compact yet frenzied 2012-13 season followed by a short, short summer and yet another long regular season, can the defending champs re-energize themselves to make another run?

How quickly will injured stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane regain their form?

Will coach Joel Quenneville's line tinkering work out?

About the only thing that seems a lock for Game 1 is the Blues will bring the bang with their big bodies. It's what they do. It's what made them one of the league's elite teams for most of the season.

"Absolutely," Quenneville said. "When you look at the way they play, and how they play and the consistency of that being a key part of their game. They're a physical team, we know that."

And his players are anticipating nothing less.

"They're a team that loves to play physical against us, and we've got to expect that," Toews said. "There's no reason why we can't return that as well. We'll be ready to bring that type of effort."

Not so fast, though, according to St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock.

"When you start searching out body contact or you start thinking you can intimidate people with body contact, you're wrong," Hitchcock said. "This is a team that we're going to play that if we think we're going to go out on a seek-and-destroy mission like both teams did with L.A. and us last year, this team will just laugh at you."

Wait, what?

Is this Hitchcock just tossing out a MacGuffin?

"They've had people running at them for five years now," the veteran coach continued. "They know how to deal with it. Going out and thinking we're going to intimidate the Chicago Blackhawks is nuts."

The Hawks aren't buying what Hitchcock is selling.

"They're a hard team to play at home," Bryan Bickell said. "They're a physical team, and the playoff atmosphere is going to bump it up."

With the return of Toews and Kane, the Hawks are as healthy as a team can be at this time of the year.

The Blues' health is a great unknown, and Hitchcock didn't shed too much light on it, saying only that he expects his injured players to see playing time against the Hawks.

The Blues did get some good news when all but Oshie and Patrik Berglund took part in Wednesday's practice.

"We're literally going to be game-time decisions every day for a little while," Hitchcock said afterward. "What you saw here today, there's a good chance it won't be what you see tomorrow."

Meanwhile Hitchcock can't help but look with an envious eye at what Quenneville has available for this series featuring old Norris Division rivals.

"You're going to get their 'A' game," Hitchcock said. "They've been sitting on this thing for a month now. They've been gliding around for a month -- sitting out guys, resting guys."

But can the Hawks do it again against a powerhouse group of Western Conference teams? That's the ultimate question.

"It's so competitive," Quenneville said. "There are a lot of good teams out there and a lot of teams this year think they can win the Cup.

"But I think we're in a much better position this year than when we defended it last time."

While St. Louis' descent from the top of the division and Colorado's subsequent rise has been a hot topic, Toews and Co. know it won't be a factor by the time the puck is dropped.

"That's what everybody wants to talk about," he said. "But we're not going to think that we have an easier team to play against. That's definitely not going to be the case. It's going to take our best to beat them."

As for the mindset of the two combatants, well, one's trying to forget recent history while the other is trying to recapture it.

"Our guys are hungry and ready to make a statement," Backes said.

"Players move on real quick," Hitchcock said of the late slide. "The end of the season seems like a year ago. It's fun to get ready for this."

The Hawks seem to have a quiet confidence about them as they defend the Cup.

"We're a focused team," Sheldon Brookbank said. "We know the kind of opportunity we have after having won last year and having a chance to be in the playoffs again.

"I think guys understand that these types of opportunities don't come around every year."

mspellman@dailyherald.com

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