ST. LOUIS — With the home team winning each of the first four games of what has been an electrifying playoff series, the St. Louis Blues return home to Scottrade Center looking to continue the trend.
It won't be easy against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago roared back to win two straight at United Center after dropping a pair of overtime defeats to fall behind 2-0 in the best-of-seven slugfest.
Being matched against the defending champs for the second year in a row to start the postseason gives the Blues a perfect chance to prove they belong, according to coach Ken Hitchcock.
"It's a big time for us," Hitchcock said. "We're trying to slay the dragon ... we're trying to prove that we belong in the top echelon. We've been in this situation two years in a row and we want to push through and come out the other side, so we're pouring everything we can into it."
When the puck drops for Game 5 at 7 p.m. Friday, will the Blues have captain David Backes in the lineup? Backes missed Games 3 and 4 following a hit to the head by Chicago's Brent Seabrook.
The Blackhawks are 2-0 without Seabrook, who got a three-game suspension for the hit on Backes, while the Blues are 0-2 without their captain.
"He's not skating today, so read what you want from that," Hitchcock said Thursday after his team's optional workout. "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 (return) time so that it doesn't turn into little bit of an advantage for Chicago."
How even has the series been?
The Blackhawks have outscored the Blues 12-11 and are 2-for-16 (12.5 percent) on the power play compared to 2-for-21 by the Blues (9.5 percent). The Blues have the edge in shots, averaging 37.5 to the Hawks' 32.2.
Both teams are missing key players in Seabrook and Backes.
"The series is even, scoring chances are even, goals for and goals against are even, special teams percentage are even. ... It's us getting to our game and them getting to their game," Hitchcock said. "Whoever does it more (Friday) is going to win."
Three of the first four games weren't decided until overtime. The other was a 1-0 game until Chicago scored a late empty-netter to win 2-0.
"It's a shame that's someone's got to lose this series because of what both organizations are putting into this thing right now," Hitchcock said. "But somebody's got to go down and I'd rather it be them than us. To see this much energy get exploited at this early stage is very, very unique."
Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said the intensity seems to be rising with each game. Every shift, every hit and every period ramps it up even higher.
"You look at all the games and they could have went either way," he said. "Three overtime games and a 2-0 game we felt we played pretty well in. Whether you're winning or losing you've got to have a short memory. The media is obviously dissecting it a lot more than we are right now."
Without Backes, whose defensive play typically helps keep Chicago stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in check, the Blues have lost two straight with both Hawks standouts enjoying strong games.
Kane scored the overtime game-winner in Game 4 when he gained the Blues' zone and used defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk as a makeshift screen before beating goalie Ryan Miller.
"We've got to be a little bit harder on Kane," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "If we can take away that time and space and play him harder and make it more difficult, I think that will be a little more successful for us."
Despite the gloom-and-doomers pointing to 2013 -- when the Blues also won the first two games of their series against the Kings before losing four straight -- the players are projecting more optimism.
"Nobody's panicking ... we're not in a bad spot," Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "It's tied and we still have home-ice (advantage). We have a good opportunity here.
"I don't think anyone's worried where we're at or anything like that. We're not."
The Blackhawks had late leads in Game 1 and 2 at Scottrade Center, only to lose one in triple overtime and the other in overtime.
"I think the result right at the end has been pretty mind-boggling the way it's played itself out," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "For the most part, I don't think we've been disappointed in one game that we've played in their building. We were in every game.
"A finished product is what we're looking for. We're due."
Hitchcock was asked Thursday about the big hits dished out by Chicago's Bryan Bickell, who also scored the tying goal in Game 4.
Hitchcock said the Hawks are saying the same thing about his players hitting defensemen Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
"It is what it is, it's a physical series," Hitchcock said before moving on to Bickell. "He's taken run at Petro (Pietrangelo), he's taken runs at Sobie (Vladimir Sobotka). We're taking runs at certain guys.
"It's not a fun series for your skill players. I'm sure there's times there's a couple of those defensemen that wish this thing would be over or someone would bypass them, but we're not doing that and they're not doing it with us. It's just the price you pay to win."