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Blues, Blackhawks begin playoff battle in St. Louis

(SportsNetwork.com) - The St. Louis Blues need to put a rough ending to the regular season behind them if they want to get past the defending Stanley Cup champions in the opening round of the playoffs.

The struggling Blues hope to get back on track when they host the Chicago Blackhawks in Thursday's Game 1 encounter at Scottrade Center.

Heading into the final week of the regular season, St. Louis was in the running to capture the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top point-earning team. Instead, an 0-6-0 skid knocked the Blues out of first place in the Central Division, where they finished a point behind the Colorado Avalanche to earn a much-tougher first-round matchup against a Chicago team that has won two of the last four Stanley Cup titles.

St. Louis went 3-2-0 in the season series against the Blackhawks, with two of those wins coming in a shootout. Chicago, though, has won seven of the 10 all- time playoff series between the Central Division rivals.

While this will mark the 11th all-time playoff series for these two clubs, they are meeting for the first time since the Blues ousted the Blackhawks in five games of the 2002 conference quarterfinals.

The good news for St. Louis is that it is getting healthy. A rash of injuries contributed to the club's season-ending slump and forwards David Backes, Vladimir Sobotka, T.J. Oshie, Brenden Morrow and Patrik Berglund are considered questionable for the start of this series.

However, a number of those players have returned to practice and Oshie, Backes, Morrow and Sobotka could all play in Game 1. So could forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who has been sidelined since the middle of March with an injured right hand.

"We're going to have everyone back at some point in the first round," Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said on Wednesday.

Ryan Miller was acquired from Buffalo at the trade deadline and enters this series as the No. 1 netminder for the Blues. St. Louis hopes Miller can help the club get out of the first round after it fell in six games to Los Angeles in the opening series last spring.

Miller was 10-8-1 with a 2.47 goals against average and .903 save percentage in 19 starts with the Blues and is 25-22 lifetime in the postseason with a 2.47 GAA and .917 save percentage. That includes two deep runs with the Sabres in 2006 and '07.

Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford didn't slow down after helping Chicago win the Cup a season ago as he went 32-16-10 with a 2.26 goals against average and .917 save percentage in 59 games, including 56 starts. Crawford is 21-15 with a 2.04 GAA in the postseason.

Like the Blues, Chicago played the end of the regular season without some key players but the Blackhawks are as healthy as they can be since forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have been declared ready to go for Game 1.

Kane missed the final 12 games of the regular season with a lower-body injury, while Toews sat out the last six with an upper-body issue. Toews, the team captain, won the Conn Smythe Trophy when Chicago won it all in 2010 and Kane claimed the playoff MVP award last spring.

"I'm excited to get things going," said the reigning Conn Smythe winner. "I've watched a lot of hockey lately, so it's going to be nice to play in some games now."

The return of Kane and Toews bulks up Chicago's talented top-six that also includes Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and the up-and-coming Brandon Saad.

Chicago won the Central Division last season in a lockout-shortened campaign and battled its way to a second Stanley Cup title in four years. The Blackhawks hope to become the first repeat champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98.

The Blues, who were 28-9-4 at home this season, will host Game 2 of this series on Saturday. Chicago was 19-14-8 on the road in 2013-14.

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