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Blackhawks Buzz: Huge test awaits in the form of the conference-leading Stars

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


1. BIGGER IN TEXAS

Although neither team is likely to describe Tuesday's matchup between Chicago and Dallas as a statement game, the first tilt of the season between the reigning Stanley Cup champions and one of the two top teams in the league should not lack in either excitement or talking points. In a packed Central Division, the Stars have managed to open up an eight-point lead over St. Louis and Chicago, overwhelming their opponents with a speedy, no-holds-barred offensive system that has resulted in a league-best 119 goals scored. They're returning home after a 6-3 come-from-behind victory in Minnesota on Monday, while the Blackhawks are trying to extend their win streak to four games after dispatching San Jose 4-3 in overtime on Sunday. No matter the result on Tuesday, the clash between the Stars' high-flying offense and the Blackhawks' depth should result in an uptempo affair featuring end-to-end action.

2. LEADING THE PACK

While Patrick Kane continues to lead the league offensively after adding two more points on Sunday, his two nearest challengers aren't far behind. Dallas forwards Jamie Benn—last year's Art Ross Trophy winner—and Tyler Seguin have thrived together for the better part of three seasons, and they've only turned it up a notch in 2015-16, combining for 91 points thus far. Benn leads the league with 22 goals, while Seguin ranks third among skaters with 27 assists and second with 46 points. Even when they're not scoring, Dallas' top line is spending a lot of time in their opponents' zone, and their speed, quick shooting and chemistry may make them one of the most lethal lines the Blackhawks will face all season. Benn, Seguin and longtime Blackhawk Patrick Sharp have compiled a 56.8 shot attempt percentage at even strength, fourth-best among top lines with a minimum of 250 minutes played together; the trio is also on the ice for 4.04 EV goals per 60 minutes—the highest among all line combinations in the league (stat ref).

3. HOTLINE KLING

If Benn and Seguin are on the ice, there's a good bet that defenseman John Klingberg is somewhere close by. The 23-year-old broke out offensively last season when he posted 40 points as a rookie, and this year the only blueliner to surpass his 31 points in 34 games is Norris Trophy incumbent Erik Karlsson. He has slowed down recently, collecting just one assist in his last six games, but with a team-leading 23-plus minutes of ice time per game, getting on the scoresheet is always a possibility. Although Klingberg can get shots through on net, he's most dangerous when showing off his passing accuracy, breakout speed and willingness to challenge defenders with the puck on his stick. He and his defensive partner, Alex Goligoski, have been one of the most consistent pairs in the NHL this season in generating scoring chances, and Dallas Head Coach Lindy Ruff will throw them out in the offensive zone whenever possible.

4. CAPTAIN'S LOG

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews ended his 600th career game in style on Sunday, netting the overtime game-winner off a feed from Kane. He now shares the NHL lead with three overtime tallies this season and has tied the franchise record held jointly by Kyle Calder (2005-06) and Marian Hossa (2012-13); his five game-winners overall are also tops in the league. With Hossa sitting out a second straight game due to injury, Toews will likely skate with Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Shaw once more; Shaw scored his sixth of the season against San Jose, and the trio combined for five scoring chances and 11 shot attempts at even strength. With Dallas' attacking power, Toews' line will be counted upon to be strong at both ends of the ice and establish a quick transition game.

5. NET GAINS

Corey Crawford continued his December run of success by making 33 saves against the Sharks for his seventh win in his last eight games; he has a .963 save percentage and three shutouts over that span. The 30-year-old has been one of the most prolific netminders in the NHL this season, sharing second with 28 appearances and ranking second with 18 wins. The Blackhawks have been able to rely heavily on their starter over the last few weeks, and they'll likely need some big stops from Crawford to keep the Stars at bay on Tuesday.

Dallas, on the other hand, has benefited nicely this season from their Finnish platoon of Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, who have merely needed to be decent behind the league's most prolific offense. With Lehtonen getting the hook on Monday in Minnesota after allowing two and Niemi picking up the win in relief, Ruff had yet to announce which netminder would be tapped to face Chicago. The Blackhawks did a nice job of cleaning up around the net on Sunday, and they'll need to continue doing so in order to make life hard for whomever they face.

THE FINAL WORD

Due to a scheduling oddity, Dallas has only played six games this season against other Central teams—three of which have been against the Wild. Tuesday's tilt could be a test of will as much as skill between the Stars, who exploded out of the gates to pace the conference, and the Blackhawks, who have enjoyed dominant goaltending from Crawford and better offensive contributions on their recent run. Dallas' offense is dangerous enough, but their blue-line corps also likes to jump up in the play and add a second later to their attacks, so catching them in transition and punishing mistakes will be one key for the visitors in order to gain two points. Unsurprisingly, the Stars have a deadly power play, so staying out of the box will be crucial to limiting scoring chances against.

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