As the season comes to a close in the next two weeks, the standings are tightening up and positions are being drawn up as to who each playoff team will face in round one. Something that even top teams realizing is that catching their rivals will not be easy.
The Chicago Blackhawks are realizing that they are running out of time and chances to catch the gleaming Dallas Stars in the Central Division. It’s the same story for the Western Conference’s top spot. If they want they have to act now, because if they aren’t careful, there are lots of opportunities to fall down in the standings like a shooting star.
Talking about stars, this Tuesdau night, the Blackhawks will try to remain within reach of Dallas, who will go for their fourth win in the season series at the United Center in Chicago. They’ll have to do it with their star player, Tyler Seguin. He will miss three to four weeks with a cut Achilles tendon.
Chicago’s recent play has not been impressive, with a 1-3-2 stretch. They did pick up points on Friday night in a 4-0 win in Winnipeg over the Jets, and another point on Sunday in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild, but was also their third straight loss on home ice.
Furthermore, the Blackhawks are 42-24-7, are struggling while the other teams in their conference are making a move to lock up a playoff spot. With their 91 points they still trail Dallas who are 43-21-9, and do so by four points. They are also standing in line behind Los Angeles and St. Louis while Anaheim, San Jose and Nashville lurk close behind battling for first place.
Chicago, backup goalie Scott Darling, has played very well in net as starter Corey Crawford has been slow to return to the game from an upper-body injury. In three starts, Darling has a 1.64 goals-against average and .945 save percentage which included his second career shutout against the Jets and a 32-save effort against the Wild.
“It’s good for me to get a little momentum going,” Darling said to media. “It’s good going forward that I’ll have this experience.”
Local media wanted to know if Crawford, who let in nine goals in two starts before he got injured, will return against Dallas tomorrow night, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville just said, “We’ll see.”
Darling has some experience playing Dallas, having played in two games against them this season. He relieved an ineffective Crawford both times. Crawford has a lousy 4.58 GAA and an .879 save percentage in four starts against the Stars, whereas Darling allowed only one goal on 25 shots in his appearances. So he looks like the right choice to make in this one.
Head to head, the Stars have won three of four meetings, which totals five wins in the last six overall. That trend might just continue, despite being on the road for the Stars.
Dallas is coming off 5-1-2 stretch after a mini slump they suffered of 1-5-2 before that. They are currently the NHL’s top-scoring team. Will that last without Seguin who wil be out for three to four weeks after surgery to repair a small cut of his left Achilles tendon. That is to be seen, but everyone in Dallas is hoping he will be back for the start of the playoffs. If the Stars win, they could clinch a spot on Tuesday.
Seguin was on an offensive tear before he got cut, he had 33 goals and ranked second on the team, only to captain Jamie Benn’s 36 goals. The injury could have been prevented if he wore a smal strip of tape to cover his heels. Seguin suffered the injury late in Thursday’s 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the same game, former Chicago forward, Patrick Sharp returned from a six-game absence due to a lower-body injury to play his old team.
What may have some critics worried in Dallas outside the injury issues has been play in the defensive end of the ice. The Stars have surrendered five goals in each of their previous two games, and that’s the sixth time they’ve allowed at least that many goals in 13 contests. So we can expect a high scoring game Tuesday night.
However, Stars’ goalie Kari Lehtonen has been strong in net in the last two, making many believe he has won the postseason starting job over team mate Antti Niemi. Lehtonen has improved to 21-9-2 by making 27 saves in Saturday’s 3-0 win over the New York Islanders getting his second shutout. He has started seven of the last eight games, and has won five.
“I’m not establishing anybody as No. 1,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “But I like the way (Lehtonen’s) playing, and the reason he has been playing is because his game has been better than Antti’s.”
Dallas will have to be strong on special teams, as they will face a Chicago power play that ranks in the top five of the league with a 22.3 percentage, and it’s ripe to score since Chicago has been in an 0-for-17 slump over the last five games. There could be an explosion tonight. But in this supernova matchup, Dallas will probably come out on top.
Our Pick: Stars over Blackhawks, 6-3