ST. LOUIS - One more game, and the Chicago Blackhawks will have linchpin defenceman Brent Seabrook back in the lineup.
The St. Louis Blues aren't certain when captain David Backes, the player on the receiving end of the head-jarring hit that landed Seabrook a three-game suspension, will be ready.
Coach Ken Hitchcock said from a selfish standpoint it would be unfair if Seabrook returned before Backes to a white-knuckle first-round playoff series tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5 Friday night. Backes was not among a handful on the ice for an optional practice Thursday and Hitchcock was tight-lipped about his status.
"He's not skating today so read what you want from that," Hitchcock said. "He's not around, he's not skating, so we'll see tomorrow.
"Hopefully, he's able to get back before Seabrook or by Seabrook's time, so it doesn't turn into a little bit of an advantage for Chicago."
The Blackhawks have won two straight, mounting their bid for a repeat Stanley Cup. They took the day off for travel, confident they can beat the Blues on the road.
"I think the odds are in our favour right now," forward Andrew Shaw said. "The last two games have been huge for us. We had a good push, the push we needed."
The Blues still have home-ice advantage in a series that couldn't be closer. Three games were decided in overtime and Game 3 was a one-goal affair before the Blackhawks added an empty-netter.
"Nobody's panicking," Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester said. "We're not in a bad spot."
Both teams have gotten solid goaltending and shown an ability to push back when the opponent appears to have momentum. The Blues came from behind late to win twice, capitalizing on Seabrook's major and game misconduct in Game 2 and the Blackhawks rebounded after squandering a 2-0 lead in Game 4.
Hitchcock and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, two of the most experienced hands in the NHL, seem to be enjoying themselves while matching wits.
"It's fun to be a part of it and it's fun to be coaching it because every shift matters and every line change matters," Hitchcock said.
"I think when you don't like the way things are going, you don't mind mixing it up a little bit," Quenneville said. "This series has been so close, so tight, last night may have been the first time we really tweaked the lines a little bit more."
The Blues have had little success containing Patrick Kane, who scored twice in Game 4 including the deciding goal after hitting the crossbar earlier in overtime.
"It's huge. You saw what he could do last year when he got hot in the playoffs," Shaw said.
Captain Jonathan Toews, named a Selke Trophy finalist Thursday, also has had a strong series. Both seem refreshed coming off lengthy injury layoffs heading into the playoffs.
"I was playing a lot of minutes and I think just having those few weeks off has definitely helped me get my body ready for this series," Toews said.
More surprisingly, Vladimir Tarasenko has emerged as a force for the Blues, returning with no rust from a broken thumb that sidelined him the last 15 regular-season games. The 22-year-old Tarasenko has an NHL-high four goals in the playoffs, tying Game 2 with 6.4 seconds remaining and his second goal in Game 4 gave St. Louis its first lead.
"He has patience where most people panic," Hitchcock said. "When he gets the opportunity to fire away he knows exactly where it's going, he knows which way the goalie's leaning."
The Blues have gotten other key injured players back, just as Hitchcock promised. But they've yet to get T.J. Oshie, scoreless in two games, and Patrik Berglund, minus-3 in Game 4, up to speed.
Oshie said Thursday he might have come back one game too soon from a blow to the head "because I didn't really do much to help the team."
Given all the extra minutes, fatigue could be a factor going forward. Two defencemen on each team played more than 28 minutes in Game 4.
"We take those days off during the year, we take those opportunities to rest during the year for these situations," defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said. "Rest, hydration, nutrition—all that stuff is coming into play right now because you might have to go into three overtimes. You never know."