Entering last Sunday, the Chicago Blackhawks appeared unlikely to challenge for the Central Division title. By the end of this Sunday, they could be alone in first place.
So could their opponent.
On the strength of a four-game win streak, the Blackhawks can move up in the Central as they host the potentially short-handed St. Louis Blues in the first of two critical matchups between the division foes in five days.
Chicago (48-24-6) held a Western Conference wild-card spot at this time last week as the fourth-place team in the Central, five points behind St. Louis (48-23-7) and eight back of division-leading Nashville. The Blackhawks have since moved past Minnesota for third place and are within one point of the Blues and Predators, who look to avoid a third straight loss Saturday against Dallas.
These teams will also meet Thursday in St. Louis. Chicago won the last two matchups after losing the first this season and has taken the past six at the United Center, including two in last year's opening-round playoff win over the Blues. Including that series, the Blackhawks are 11-0-2 in the clubs' past 13 meetings in Chicago. St. Louis, though, is 14-3-3 on the road since Jan. 2.
"With them twice in the next three games, they're huge games for us," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "They're four-point games with so little time to make up ground. ... We know they're meaningful."
Quenneville's club is coming off a stunning 4-3 victory in Buffalo. The Blackhawks trailed the league's worst team with less than two minutes to go until Jonathan Toews scored twice in a 47-second span, briefly moving them ahead of St. Louis until the Blues rallied for a 7-5 win over Dallas.
Toews has scored three game-winners and assisted on another during Chicago's four-game streak.
"He's had a big, big week," Quenneville said of Toews, who has five goals in the past five games. "He's a special player, and the bigger the stage, the bigger the response."
St. Louis heads into Chicago having won back-to-back games after losing five of six. The Blues rallied from a two-goal deficit by scoring the final four Thursday, including two by Jaden Schwartz as part of his second career hat trick.
"This is the type of character that we have in this dressing room. Even if we're down by however many goals, we're going to find a way to battle through that," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said.
The Blues have played the past two games without top scorer Vladimir Tarasenko and the last three without second-leading scorer Alexander Steen. Both players are day-to-day because of lower-body injuries, but Steen was on the ice for Saturday's optional skate in Chicago, a positive sign that he might return soon.
The Blackhawks are the only team to hold Steen without a point this season even though he played all three meetings. Tarasenko scored one of his career-best 36 goals in the most recent matchup, a 4-2 home loss Feb. 8.
Chicago is expected to play its 18th consecutive game without superstar forward Patrick Kane.
Kris Versteeg has two goals and two assists in two games versus the Blues this season but has two points in his last 16 contests. Toews has been limited to one assist in the season series.