After two games that had the Blackhawks looking like anything but a playoff team, they found the formula to put them on the brink of the postseason.

Playing with a sense of desperation that is indicative of a team needing a big victory in the closing stages of the regular season, the Hawks played one of their best games in months Wednesday night in a 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues.

A stifling defense, opportunistic offense and strong goaltending helped the Hawks snap a two-game skid and move to within one point of clinching their first playoff appearance since 2002.

Jonathan Toews, Sammy Pahlsson and Colin Fraser provided the offense and Nikolai Khabibulin took advantage of stellar play from the Hawks' defense to record the victory.

The Hawks held the Blues to 16 shots on goal and had a stretch of 17 minutes, 48 seconds over the first and second periods in which they didn't allow St. Louis a shot on Khabibulin.

The triumph before a United Center crowd of 21,548 allowed the Hawks to vault over the idle Calgary Flames and into fourth place in the Western Conference, which would earn them home-ice advantage in the first round. The Hawks have six games remaining in the regular season and can clinch a playoff berth as early as Thursday night if the Blues lose to the Red Wings in Detroit.

"It was a good bounce-back game after a couple of not-so-good games," Pahlsson said. "We started the game really well. They hardly had any shots (three) in the first period. We started from our end and we made good plays and that makes it easier. We played more in their end and got more shots and more scoring chances."

The Hawks gave Khabibulin, who improved to 21-8-6 on the season, all of the offense he needed early.

Midway through the first period, Toews skated from the right circle around two Blues defenders and beat St. Louis goalie Chris Mason to the stick side. Pahlsson, acquired March 4 in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks, scored his first goal as a Blackhawk later in the period.

Fraser's short-handed goal off a breakaway with just less than five minutes remaining made it 3-0, and only Jeff Woywitka's power-play goal with 1.5 seconds left ruined Khabibulin's shutout bid.

"We had a meeting and talked about the little things we need to start doing," Fraser said. "We were tight and making smart plays, chipping it in and out-working them."

The victory eased the pressure on the Hawks, who had fallen out of fourth place after scoring one goal in losses to Vancouver and Montreal.

"We had a good effort," Quenneville said of the victory over the Blues, who had a five-game winning streak snapped. "We had a good start, we checked well and we did a lot of good things ."

ckuc@tribune.com