The Chicago Blackhawks are poised to dominate the Central Division for the foreseeable future thanks to an ultra-talented core of championship veterans and depth at every position.
But a fierce challenger is stepping up to the plate—a familiar rival that has a long history with the Original Six club.
That team is the St. Louis Blues, a franchise that has gone from being a bottom-feeder in the Central Division to a legitimate Western Conference contender in just two seasons.
The Blues took a big step forward in rekindling their rivalry with the Blackhawks on Friday by re-signing franchise defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. According to Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the two sides finally agreed to a seven-year deal worth $45.5 million.
#stlblues announce they have signed Alex Pietrangelo. It's a seven-year contract worth $6.5 million per year.— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) September 13, 2013
For a rivalry to really mean something, both teams involved need to be competitive and have similar goals. In this instance, that goal is winning the Stanley Cup.
Which team will be Chicago's top rival next season?
If the Blues failed to re-sign Pietrangelo—their only elite two-way defenseman—winning a championship wouldn't be a realistic goal. Locking him up long-term affords the team a great chance to challenge Chicago for the Central Division title and conference crown over the next five-to-seven seasons.
His presence on the blue line as a shutdown defenseman and top playmaker gives the Blues a deep defensive corps that already included veteran Jay Bouwmeester and rising star Kevin Shattenkirk, who was also re-signed in the offseason.
With a deep blue line and a solid goaltending trio of Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, St. Louis is quickly becoming one of the league's best defensive teams.
These are the types of clubs that achieve postseason success in today's NHL.
|Year||GAA (NHL Rank)||PK% (NHL Rank)||Shots Against/Game|
|2011-12||1.89 (1st)||85.8 (7th)||26.7 (1st)|
|2012-13||2.40 (7th)||84.7 (7th)||24.2 (2nd)|
Now that both franchises have a roster full of young and talented players signed long-term, in addition to the Detroit Red Wings moving East, expect the Blues and Blackhawks to write a lot of new chapters in what can already be described as one of the NHL's most historic rivalries.
Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looked back at the glory days of this rivalry before a February matchup between the two teams last season.
From 1988-93 the teams met in the playoffs five times. In 1993, the Blues swept the Blackhawks in four games of the division semifinals, winning the final game in overtime on a goal by Brett Hull. Chicago netminder Ed Belfour was furious, insisting he had been steamrolled on the play. When the protests went unheeded, Belfour went bonkers, doing thousands of dollars worth of damage to the visiting dressing room.
A few seasons earlier, the tables were different. Coached by Brian Sutter, the Blues then engaged Mike Keenan’s Blackhawks in a classic division finals. Four of the first five games were decided by a goal, and the Blues extended the series by winning Game 6 in St. Louis 4-2, behind two goals by Hull and 37 saves by Vincent Riendeau.
Two nights later, the Red, Black and Hawks devastated the Note 8-2 in one of the most demoralizing defeats in franchise history.
Chicago and St. Louis haven't met in the playoffs since a 2002 Western Conference quarterfinal series that the Blues won in five games.
In fact, these rivals have reached the postseason in the same year just three times (2008-09, 2011-12 and 2012-13) in the salary-cap era (2005-06 to present).
But with the NHL switching to a divisional-playoff-style format as part of its new realignment plan starting this season, we should expect to see many more intense postseason battles between these teams in the near future. After all, rivalries are at their best in the playoffs.
Who wins the 2013-14 Central Division title?
If the Blackhawks are going to become the first team in 15 years to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and begin a rare NHL dynasty, they will probably have to go through the Blues—a young, highly motivated team ready to compete for the sport's greatest prize.
This is very exciting for hockey fans because who doesn't enjoy some classic Norris Division hockey?
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft.