A recent six-game winning streak may have put the St. Louis Blues back into the heart of the playoff race, but the surging club knows there is still little room for error.
Playing the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks twice over the final eight games doesn't help either and the Blues try to rebound with a victory over the Central Division champs on Sunday afternoon.
The Blues sat eighth overall in the West but just a single point ahead of four teams for the final playoff spot in the conference before ripping off six straight victories from April 1-11. Each of the last three games of that winning streak came by way of a shutout, but St. Louis was unable to stretch its scoreless run with Friday's 4-1 setback to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Though Brian Elliott had been in net for the previous three games, St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock opted to go with rookie backup Jake Allen on Friday one night after a 2-0 win over the Minnesota Wild. Allen allowed all four goals on 19 shots and got beat for the first Blue Jackets goal with 5:28 left in the first.
That snapped the Blues' franchise-record shutout streak at 215 minutes and 56 seconds, surpassing the 201:32 run set from March 21-29 of last year.
"I think we've lived on a fine line for a while and it went against us tonight," said Hitchcock, who was denied his 600th career win. "They were able to out-work us in the corners and the past couple of games we were able to get away with it, but not tonight."
Kevin Shattenkirk scored the lone goal for the Blues, who were on their longest winning streak since ripping off seven in a row from Oct. 22-Nov. 7, 2010.
St. Louis now sits in sixth place in the conference with 48 points, just one back of the San Jose Sharks in the standings. The Blues do have a crowd behind them as well and sit three points ahead of three teams tied for eighth in the West.
Seven of the Blues' final eight games will be at home and Sunday afternoon's game starts a four-game residency. St. Louis is 9-7-1 as the host this season.
Hitchcock is likely to go back to Elliott for this big matchup and the former All-Star brings a personal 189:31 shutout streak into the game. He set the club record last season with a 241:33 scoreless streak.
The Blues have had their recent struggles versus the Blackhawks, who are 8-2-1 in the previous 11 meetings. Chicago won a 3-0 decision in its lone previous trip this season to St. Louis on Feb. 28.
The 'Hawks will visit the Blues again on April 27 to close the regular season.
Chicago captain Jonathan Toews scored twice in St. Louis in late February, while Corey Crawford and Ray Emery combined for a 21-save shutout. Emery played the final two periods and stopped 15 shots after Crawford exited with an injury.
The Blackhawks have already locked up their trip to the postseason and will do so as division champions after beating the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout on Friday coupled with the Blues' loss to the Blue Jackets.
Chicago clinched its 15th division title in franchise history and first since its Stanley Cup-winning 2009-10 season.
Toews scored a game-tying goal with 2:57 to go in regulation on Friday and Marian Hossa extended the shootout with a third-round goal. Brandon Saad then put homer the winner in the fifth round, giving Chicago its fourth straight win and a record of 6-0-1 in the past seven.
"I think we were looking at this game as a potential playoff matchup," said Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville. "That's the way this game felt tonight because they fought us tooth-and-nail the whole way."
Viktor Stalberg also scored in the victory, with Crawford coming up with 27 saves in regulation and overtime prior to thwarting 4-of-5 Detroit skaters in the deciding phase.
With 66 points, the Blackhawks lead the Anaheim Ducks by seven points with two games in hand for the top seed in the West. Chicago is also two points in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the race for the best record in the NHL.