Blues-Blackhawks Preview

The Associated Press

St. Louis Blues goaltender Brian Elliott's record-setting run is making coach Ken Hitchcock's looming decision on a playoff starter an extremely difficult one.

Jaroslav Halak is expected to get a chance to make his case in the team's next game.

Halak will try to help the Blues clinch their first Central Division title since 2000 and move a step closer to the Western Conference's No. 1 seed by helping them earn their first win in Chicago in more than two years Thursday night.

St. Louis (48-20-9) became the second team since the start of the 1967-68 season to post 15 shutouts in one campaign when Elliott stopped 24 shots in a 3-0 victory over Nashville on Tuesday. He also extended his scoreless streak to a team-record 186:33 and set another franchise mark with his ninth shutout this season.

Elliott, though, is expected to sit while Halak starts against the Blackhawks (42-26-9).

"I quite frankly don't know what to do," Hitchcock said about his decision for the playoffs. "We're in a very unique position where we've got two guys who are on top of their game right now and are really the story of our hockey club."

While Halak isn't on an incredible streak, he has allowed two or fewer goals in 11 of his last 13 games, including a 5-1 win over Chicago on March 6. He's 3-0-1 with a 1.47 goals-against average in his last four matchups with the Blackhawks but was part of a 4-3 shootout defeat March 13 at the United Center.

The Blues can clinch the Central with either a regulation or overtime victory.

Chicago rallied from a 3-1 deficit March 13 to earn its sixth straight home win in the series but has dropped consecutive games since Duncan Keith's suspension. The defenseman has three games remaining on his ban for elbowing Vancouver's Daniel Sedin in the head during a 2-1 overtime victory on March 21.

The Blackhawks, though, nearly won without him Tuesday in New Jersey. Keith's defensive partner, Brent Seabrook, scored the tying goal in the third period but Chicago lost 2-1 after a five-round shootout.

"Other than the first five minutes, I thought we worked ourselves back into that game," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We'll take the point and keep pushing."

The Blackhawks will clinch a playoff berth for the fourth straight season with a win and a regulation loss from Phoenix on Thursday.

While Ray Emery could return from an upper-body injury Thursday, Quenneville might look to Corey Crawford to earn that victory. Crawford replaced Emery during the home win over St. Louis on March 13, stopping all 18 shots he faced and three Blues players in the shootout.

Crawford has allowed one goal over his last two appearances against St. Louis - both at home - and is 4-1-0 with a 2.08 GAA in his last five. He stopped 29 shots during a 3-1 victory at the United Center on Feb. 19.

That was the last game in which captain Jonathan Toews appeared for the team. While he's returned to practice, he still hasn't been cleared for contact as he recovers from a concussion.

The Blackhawks are 10-5-2 in his absence and 6-2-1 at home. Marian Hossa will try to help deliver another win by adding to his team-best five points against the Blues this season.

In three seasons with Chicago, the veteran winger has 10 goals versus St. Louis, three more than versus any other opponent over that span.

St. Louis is likely hoping that Andy McDonald can return from a shoulder injury Thursday as four of his nine goals this season have come against the Blackhawks.

If he plays, McDonald will try to help deliver the Blues' first win at the United Center since Feb. 3, 2010.