An excellent start to the schedule might be the key to gaining ground in the hyper-competitive Central Division this season, and Thursday’s season opener in Dallas against a much-improved Stars team will provide the Blackhawks with an immediate test. Dallas, a worthy wild-card team in 2013-14, further bolstered their firepower with the additions of skilled forwards Ales Hemsky and Jason Spezza, while the young trio of Valeri Nichushkin (who tallied 34 points last season as an 18-year-old rookie), Tyler Seguin (84 points) and captain Jamie Benn (79 points) will keep Chicago on their toes at both ends of the ice. With plenty of speed along both wings, the Stars may boast one of the league’s fastest neutral-zone rushes, which means the Blackhawks will need to exercise caution when pinching and support each other on the backcheck if they want to contain Dallas’ potent offense.
The Stars are expected to score this season, but they may be vulnerable on the blue line, especially with a preseason injury to veteran Sergei Gonchar that landed him on injured reserve. Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski comprise a formidable top pairing, but the Blackhawks can certainly take advantage of the more inexperienced players behind them. Dallas allowed 30.4 shots and 2.72 goals per game last year, ranking 18th and 17th, respectively, and there are doubts about whether those numbers can improve without serious reinforcements on defense. Dallas wants another solid campaign from goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who put up decent numbers in 2013-14 – .919 save percentage, 2.41 goals-against average and 33 wins – but, at 30 years old, injury and flexibility could be a concern going forward.
Hemsky and Spezza played together in Ottawa for the latter half of 2013-14, so adding them as a tandem was somewhat of a coup for Dallas General Manager Jim Nill. The duo is expected to line up with useful veteran Erik Cole to form a seasoned second line. They are also expected to help the Stars’ power play, which sputtered at a woeful 15.9 percent last season, just 23rd in the league. The revamped top unit of Hemsky, Spezza, Seguin, Benn and Daley garnered rave reviews during preseason, and could cause major headaches for opposing penalty-killers. Chicago finished last season tied for 19th in the league (81.4 percent), and will want to avoid being the first test subjects for what should be a dynamic power-play unit.
Brad Richards, the Blackhawks’ only major signing in the offseason, is set to face his former employers in Dallas on Thursday. He compiled 227 points (70G, 157A) in just 220 regular-season games with the Stars between 2008 and 2011; his most successful campaign came in 2009-10, when he tied a career high with 91 points in 80 games and finished second in Lady Byng Trophy voting. Although the 34-year-old slotted between Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad for much of training camp and preseason, he could begin on the third line, tasked with winning faceoffs and sending pucks to Bryan Bickell and either Ben Smith or Jeremy Morin (in Kris Versteeg’s extended absence). Also look for Richards to quarterback the Blackhawks’ second power-play unit, running plays from the point.
Following Michal Rozsival’s injury and the trade of Nick Leddy, the Blackhawks could ice some unfamiliar defensive pairings on Thursday. Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson will split up, with the latter returning to his natural left-side position for balance, and David Rundblad, Kyle Cumiskey and training camp surprise Trevor van Riemsdyk filling out the bottom-four. Rundblad appeared in five games with Chicago after joining the team in a trade deadline deal last season, and can provide offense from the right side. Cumiskey, who played for Head Coach Joel Quenneville in Colorado, brings speed and a willingness to join the rush, and is the most experienced of the new trio. Van Riemsdyk, who signed in March as a college free agent out of the University of New Hampshire, impressed the hockey ops department with his combination of size, mobility and hockey sense. As Q says, “He's a pretty smart customer and cool in a lot of situations.”
Both the Blackhawks and the Stars base their game plans on team speed and offensive flair, which should make Thursday’s season opener in Dallas a highly entertaining and free-flowing affair. The two squads are fairly well matched through their top six, and the chess match between Quenneville and Ruff will be fascinating. Chicago’s defense and depth should give them an edge, but they’ll need to be smart in the neutral zone and avoid taking too many penalties. The bottom line going into the game will be the importance of securing two points against a divisional rival and getting the 2014-15 season off to a good start.