Blackhawks, Blues Revisit Rivarly Two Teams as Evenly Matched as Can Be Heading into First-Round Playoff Battle

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Byline: Tim Sassone Daily Herald Sports Writer

ST. LOUIS - There is little that separates the Blackhawks and the Blues as they get set to begin their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series here tonight at Savvis Center.

Even the distance between the two cities - 296 miles - is the shortest of any opening-round series.

The Hawks and the Blues battled for fourth place in the Western Conference all season, with 7 points the widest lead for either team until St. Louis pulled ahead in the final week. The Blues ultimately finished with 98 points to the Hawks' 96.

St. Louis won 43 games, the Hawks 41.

The Hawks won 28 games at home, the Blues 27.

The Hawks' power play ranked sixth in the league, the Blues' seventh.

Blues goalie Brent Johnson won 34 games, Jocelyn Thibault 33.

Eric Daze and Keith Tkachuk each led their teams with 38 goals.

Get it? This figures to be one close best-of-seven series.

"It could conceivably go 21 periods and a whole bunch after that," Hawks coach Brian Sutter said.

Perhaps it's only fitting that these two clubs meet in the first round. Not only have they battled tooth and nail all season, but this is one of the best rivalries in the NHL that has cooled in recent years and was in dire need of something to ignite it again.

And there's nothing like a long playoff series to do just that.

"The likelihood of us playing Chicago seems to have been there all along," Blues coach Joel Quenneville said. "There were lots of possibilities at the end, but for a long time it was going to be Chicago. We're very familiar with them."

The Hawks won the season series 3-1-1, but that means nothing now. The Blues closed on an 8-2-0 roll, while the Hawks went 2-4-1 down the stretch.

"We're peaking at the right time," Blues captain Chris Pronger said.

"We've got a lot of respect for them, but we're also not afraid of them," Sutter said. "We've got a lot of assets on our team."

To win the series the Hawks need to use their speed and get goals from the top three lines, starting with Tony Amonte, Eric Daze, Steve Sullivan, Steve Thomas, Michael Nylander, Kyle Calder and Alex Zhamnov.

The Hawks forwards have orders to shoot often and from everywhere against Johnson, who has only one full game of playoff experience under his belt. …