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Blackhawks Buzz: Battle atop Central intensifies with Friday tilt in Dallas

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


The standings tell the story: At the top of the Central Division, Chicago sits in a tie with Dallas with 88 points, with St. Louis lurking just a point behind after defeating the Blackhawks 3-2 in a shootout on Wednesday. Chicago currently holds the tie-breakers with 41 wins—40 of them in regulation or overtime—but the margin for error over the next few weeks is slim, and both the Blackhawks and the Stars should be motivated to nail down a regulation win on Friday. The remaining schedules won't be kind to Dallas, who are facing a stretch of six straight games against playoff teams, including their final two meetings with Chicago. The Stars have taken two of the first three matchups this season, including a 4-0 blanking at home on Dec. 22 and a 4-2 win at the United Center on Feb. 11; Chicago's lone victory was a 5-1 road result on Feb. 6.


Despite collecting points in four of their last five games, the Stars have struggled, with the team's shooting and save percentages dipping dramatically as injuries have mounted over the last month (see By the Numbers note). Tyler Seguin has not posted a point in five games, and Jamie Benn has just assists in his last six outings, but one veteran who has produced is Jason Spezza. The 32-year-old has tallied in four straight games, giving him 25 goals on the year and marking his best production since 2011-12 with Ottawa; he's two points away from reaching 800 in his career and seven goals away from hitting the 300 mark. Spezza ranks fourth on the Stars this season with 49 points in 62 games and shares second with seven power-play goals, and based on Thursday's practice, he'll likely center youngsters Valeri Nichushkin and Brett Ritchie to begin the game against Chicago.


Health has been an issue throughout the Stars roster, but they're really feeling the toll on their blue line, with three of their top six currently out of the lineup. Chief among those is breakout star John Klingberg, who has 53 points (10G, 43A) in 66 games during his second NHL season, third among league blueliners. Jordie Benn is also out of the lineup due to a lower-body injury. While Klingberg and Benn (as well as forward Patrick Sharp) are expected to return next week, the Stars will also be without Jason Demers—who has played with Johnny Oduya on the second pairing for much of the season while averaging over 20 minutes per game—for up to six weeks after he sustained a shoulder injury in Montreal on Tuesday. Recently acquired Kris Russell will be expected to play an elevated role for the Stars, as well as Oduya and fellow veteran Alex Goligoski. In addition, Stephen Johns will make his NHL debut against the team that drafted him (2010, second round) on Friday after being recalled from the AHL; the 23-year-old has 24 points (4G, 20A) in 55 games with Texas this season.


The Blackhawks kept their power play rolling on Wednesday, going 1-for-4 against St. Louis to stretch their run of success to five consecutive games with a power-play tally; the team has converted seven of 26 opportunities (43.8 percent) over that span. One reason has been better net-front presence, led by deadline acquisition Andrew Ladd, who netted the Blackhawks' first goal of the game against the Blues by tipping in Teuvo Teravainen's shot from the right circle, showing off his hand-eye coordination, not for the first time since his arrival in late February. The 30-year-old has two goals and two assists in five games with the club and has not looked out of place at all on Chicago's top line. Ladd has also helped the captain put together a five-game point streak (3G, 2A), and whenever Marian Hossa is able to re-join the team, that trio should make things even more difficult for opponents at both ends of the ice.


Dallas has been able to outscore its defensive deficiencies for most of the season, but with an ailing blue line and a couple of notable slumps among their forward corps, the holes are being exposed. The Stars' tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi are tied for the second-worst even-strength save percentage in the NHL at .914, and neither netminder has been able to establish themselves as the clear-cut starter heading into the playoff run. Niemi has started 38 games to Lehtonen's 30 and has posted a 22-12-6 record with a .903 SV%, while his fellow Finn is 18-8-2 with a .902 SV%. Still, Niemi did author a 20-save shutout against the Blackhawks on Dec. 22 and has three career blank sheets against his former team. Whoever is in net on Friday, Chicago will need to test him early and often and continue to get traffic in front.


The Stars have a punishing remaining schedule, and with the Blues arriving in town on the Blackhawks' heels, Friday's tilt could represent a turning point in the Central Division title race. All three matchups between Dallas and Chicago so far this season have been rather lopsided affairs, and with injuries decimating their blue line, the Stars will need their offense to start connecting as well as a more inspired goaltending performance than they've been getting in recent weeks. The Blackhawks have relied on a red-hot power play and stellar outings by Corey Crawford to carry them through some tough games recently, and if they can't take advantage of the Stars at even strength, fans could see more of the same storylines playing out on Friday. But there shouldn't be lack of motivation on either side, not with two big points on the line.

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