Lighting The Lamp, With Rick Ackerman
The Blues have already delighted their loyal fans with two nights of unbridled excitement, handily defeating Nashville in the home opener and throttling Florida with seven goals while Jaroslav Halak set a club record for shutouts, surpassing the legendary Glenn Hall. And another night of excitement looms as the "Original Six" arch-rival Chicago Blackhawks visits the TradeStocks Center tonight to challenge the Blues for the divisional lead.
Of course, the Blackhawks are not one of the original teams of the National Hockey League, founded in 1917. The term "Original Six" is simply a marketing tool to sell more merchandise in those six cities that have had strong NHL franchises and fan bases since 1926. Factually, the four original cities that hosted teams in the NHL were Montreal (two teams, the Canadiens and Wanderers), Toronto (Arenas, later Maple Leafs), Ottawa (Senators) and Quebec (Bulldogs). The Bulldogs were unable to play due to financial restraints despite being a full member of the new league. Boston was the first American city added by expansion in 1924. Chicago did not join the NHL until 1926. They were one of three American franchises added that year, along with the Detroit Cougars (later Red Wings) and the New York Rangers. In truth, the "Original Six" today is only the "Original Three", Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.
For those pundits who claim the Blues' excellent start is not indicative of how they will perform against elite teams this season, the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks will provide the first real opportunity for the Blues to truly show how good they are. However, the same can be said by critics of the team from the Windy City as the Blackhawks have faced two middle-of-the-road teams so far, Tampa Bay (a shootout loss due to the superb play goaltender Ben Bishop) and Washington (a sloppy 6-4 victory). So, tonight's game for divisional bragging rights enables fans of both cities a better measuring stick of how things will turn out at the end of the season and into the playoffs.
And with the despised Detroit Red Wings joining the Eastern Conference, Blues Nation can now focus its attention solely on Chicago as the team to hate the most.
Of course, Joel Quenneville's team does not have very many critics as there are no empty seats on the Blackhawk bandwagon after winning two Cup championships in the last four years. Last year's spectacular season and streak saw Chicago earn points in the first 24 consecutive games of the 42 game schedule, an NHL record. The eyes of the hockey world were focused squarely on the Hawks. Add the star-power of players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa and a solid defense spearheaded by Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and proven goaltender Corey Crawford, and it's quite easy for the new or casual fan to pick Chicago as their favorite team. And so the Madhouse on Madison (19, 717 capacity) is jammed packed with over 20,000 rabid fans every single game now and there is a long waiting list for season tickets.
Long-time Hawks' fans can only shake their heads, smile and then laugh out loud at the current prosperity the team is enjoying, well remembering the long years of futility and despair. It only took eight years from inception for Chicago to win its first Stanley Cup championship in 1934, and they repeated in 1938. However, a long drought of 23 years ensued, and it would not be until 1961 that the Blackhawks would sip champagne again from the Cup, led by Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall. Former Blues Ab McDonald and Al Arbour joined Hall on that team. An even longer drought then doomed Hawks' fans to the kind of agony Blues' fans endure as it took 49 years for Chicago to win another Cup championship. Of course, it has now been 46 years since the Blues joined the league and there has not yet been a parade down Market St. or Oakland Ave.
The Blues and Blackhawks have played a total of 278 regular season games since 1967 with Chicago holding a decent lead, 133 to 103 with 42 ties. Chicago has done better head-to-head in post season play, winning seven of ten series and 28 of 50 games. However, the Blues won the last two series in 1993 and 2002, winning eight of nine games. The fierce, bitter rivalry between the two clubs began when both were assigned to the Western division in 1970 and continued as both belonged to the Smythe Division (1974), the Norris (1981), and Central (1993-present). Perhaps the most defining moment of the rivalry came in a brawl on March 17, 1991, dubbed the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. During a game in which both teams were competing for the President's Trophy, Glen Featherstone clobbered Jeremy Roenick in retaliation for Roenick's hard hit on Harold Snepsts. Keith Brown shoved Featherstone and the melee was on, ending with six players on each team ejected from the contest, including the Blues Scott Stevens and Kelly Chase, who both also received two-game suspensions from the NHL as well as $10,000 fines.
Downtown St. Louis will be rockin' with the Cardinals hosting the Pirates in an elimination playoff game and the Blues facing off against the Blackhawks in a battle for the division lead. May both the baseball and hockey gods smile upon St. Louis sports fans and giving them a "happy flight" home tonight.