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Lighting the Lamp: Bringing Down The Hawks

You might recognize the "Lighting the Lamp" feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Lighting the Lamp" will be featured weekly every Thursday afternoon, as well as every home game day.

Why is it that every single game so far in April has been "the most important game of the season" for the St. Louis Blues? Well, simply because it's true as each and every one has been just that, the most important game of the season. The Blues lost four out of five games during the last two weeks of March and were slowly slipping downward past the eighth and last spot to qualify for the playoffs. When St. Louis visited Minnesota on April 1, the club had 36 points and was in ninth place in the conference, one behind Columbus with the eighth seed and three points behind Detroit with the seventh. How things have changed since then, eh? It is clear now that GM Doug Armstrong knew exactly what he was doing when he obtained defensemen Jordan Leopold from Buffalo and Jay Bouwmeester from Calgary to stabilize the Blues' defense. Since the trades were made on April 3, the Note has now won five games out of six, only allowing a meager eight goals against with numbers 19 and 33 in the lineup. St. Louis now holds the number six seed in the conference race to qualify for the playoffs, jumping over three clubs in just two short weeks. They are comfortably ahead of ninth place Phoenix with a game in hand. And the Blues are not far behind Los Angeles (with the very desirable number four slot) with a game in hand.

Today's premiere matinee with the Western Conference leading Chicago Blackhawks is the fourth meeting of these staunch divisional rivals. The Blackhawks lead the series, winning 3-2 in Chicago and 3-0 in St. Louis, while the Blues won a shootout in Chicago, 4-3. A victory by the Note ties the series at two games each and leaves it up to the last regular season home game to decide the series. If the Blues are to win the series, they will have to contain center Jonathan Toews, who has three goals and two assists in three games against St. Louis. The defense will also have to pay particular attention to winger Patrick Kane, the team's leading scorer with 20 goals (and 46 points) in 39 games (only one goal against the Blues). These two scoring stars led Chicago to a Stanley Cup in 2010 (their first in 49 years) and have lifted Chicago to lofty heights in the NHL this shortened season, much like two scoring stars lifted the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship in 1961.

Stan Mikita (born Stanislav Guoth in Sokolce, Slovak Republic, in 1940) immigrated to Canada with his family to escape Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia and settled in St. Catherines, Ontario. As a teenager, Stan played center for the St. Catherines Teepees, a junior team owned by the Blackhawks. He was first called up to Chicago for three games in 1958, a brash eighteen year old rookie determined to prove himself. In his second full season, 1961, Mikita was instrumental in driving the team to their third Stanley Cup, leading all playoff scorers with six goals. He continued early success the next season, centering Kenny Wharram and Ab McDonald on the "Scooter Line", combining raw talent with a mean-tempered, physical style of play, which also made him one of the dirtiest and most penalized (and feared) players in the league. Mikita was the first to develop a slight curve in the blade of his stick, giving him an advantage in not only shooting the puck, but also in winning face-offs. He was the league scoring leader four times during the decade and was the third-highest career scoring in league history when he retired in 1980.

It was Robert Marvin Hull of Pointe Anne (now Belleville), Ontario who surpassed even Mikita in the hearts of hockey fans as "the Golden Jet", arguably the best left winger in league history. Also a graduate of the Teepees program, Hull joined Chicago in 1957 at the tender age of 18, runner-up to Frank Mahovlich of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Calder Trophy as best rookie. Originally wearing number16, Hull later switched to number 9 as a tribute to his childhood idol, Gordie Howe. Along with Mikita, Hull used a curve in the blade of his stick, which embellished his already blazing, heavy shot, causing the puck to veer high and at all different angles. His ability to harness and control the blade’s unpredictability made it virtually impossible for goaltenders to see the puck, much less stop it. A solid mass of muscle throughout his body enabled Hull to skate like a speedy freight train, leaping through defenders and outworking them in the corners. In March of 1966, Hull became the first NHL player to score more than 50 goals in a season, surpassing Rocket Richard’s (and Boom-Boom Goeffrion's) hallowed record. He went on to lead the league in goal scoring seven times during the 60s, scoring at least 50 goals a remarkable five times. Hull ended his NHL career playing in 1,063 games, accumulating 610 goals, 1170 points, three Art Ross Trophies, two Hart Trophies, and one Stanley Cup ring. He also was first team All-Star ten times in 15 seasons.

Despite Friday's disappointing loss to a very tough Columbus team, the Blues are still in good position to finish fourth, helped by a home-ice advantage in seven of the right remaining games. Today is a good day to take advantage of that and defeat the first place Blackhawks.