The NHL’s Central division rivalry is heating up and coming to a head tomorrow night as the Chicago Blackhawks and the Dallas Stars, who are tied atop the Central Division standings, prepare to face off in the lone star state. The Stars have won two of the first three matchups, and neither of those games were decided by fewer than two goals. So it’s very likely that the Central division race is about to get a little more exciting.
What is up for taking is sole possession of first place, which the Stars and Blackhawks will fight over on Friday night. The winner won’t probably have that status for for long, but it should be a good test for the post-season.
Only one point separates the Western Conference’s top three teams going into this star matchup. The St. Louis Blues are right behind them and gaining ground, especially after beating the Blackhawks in Wednesday’s 3-2 shootout win. The Stars will have another tough game the next night, when they host the Blues Saturday night.
Chicago who has a record of 41-21-6, and Dallas who’s at 40-20-8 have let the Blues to close the gap with their under par results. In the last seven games, the Blackhawks are 3-3-1 while the Stars took an eighth loss in 11 games with a 4-3 overtime loss against the struggling Montreal Canadiens.
“Tough game on the road and I think it is good to get a point, but we’ve got to find a way to win that game,” center Jason Spezza told local media. “Whether it is in overtime or the couple chances we had in the third, that is a game we should be winning.”
The Blackhawks weren’t been able to protect a 1-0 lead after two periods against the Blues, but at least they got a point which was an important one, when Artemi Panarin tied it with 1:17 left to go, after pulling goaltender Corey Crawford for an extra skater. Hawks winger Panarin has five points in his last four games so he’s been hot.
“We’re disappointed we gave up the lead,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “And then you score with the goalie out you’ve got to be pretty happy on the road.”
The Blues scored both their late period goals with special teams, on the power play. They uncovered pretty quickly what Chicago’s main recent weakness has been. The Blackhawks have only killed off 61.1 percent of short-handed chances in 12 games since Feb. 9. That stat is the NHL’s lowest rate over that span.
Their defensive decline also applies to Dallas’ drop-off, who’s surrendered a league-high 40 goals over 10 games since Feb. 18. They are critically without defensemen John Klingberg and Jordie Benn due to lower-body injuries. And their backline is further thinned out when Jason Demers suffered a potentially long-term shoulder injury in Tuesday’s game.
Dallas has suffered from slumping offensive results from its top two forwards. Tyler Seguin right now is a minus-seven over a season-high five-game streak without a point. And team mate Jamie Benn hasn’t scored in his season-high seven straight games. So they are itching to score. But still, they’ll come into the game having won two of their last three games and will look to extend that roll.
Star’s Jason Spezza has also been productive for the team, getting a goal in four straight games and tallying seven in his last eight. But on the downside,the Stars will not have ex-Blackhawk Patrick Sharp in the game against his former team due to a lower body injury which has kept him out already for three games.
Chicago’s Marian Hossa is also injured, he’s out nine games with a lower leg injury. There might be a chance he may play since he’s returned to practice on Tuesday. Their goaltender has played well though, Crawford has allowed two goals or less in five consecutive starts and had 36 saves in a 5-1 win at Dallas on Feb. 6. He was pulled after one period in a 4-2 home rout to the Stars five days later when they last met, even though Patrick Eaves got a hat trick in a four-goal first period.
This season, the Stars won the teams’ first 2015-16 meeting by a 4-0 score where goalie Antti Niemi’s 20 saves. But he hasn’t played since March 1, and has a 4.68 goals-against average over his last five starts.
Star’s goalie Kari Lehtonen has played for Dallas in their last three games, stopping 41 of 44 shots in wins over the New Jersey Devils and the Ottawa Senators. He had a season-high 44 saves in the game played on Feb. 11 which they won on the road in Chicago.
It just seems that the Stars are ready to break out, and are mentally ready to fight the Blackhawks and then the Blues, so look for them to make a point against their heated rival, that they are here to stay.
Our Pick: Stars over Blackhawks, 4-2