1. FIRST STARS
The Dallas Stars arrive in town with the ability to clinch a playoff spot if they can claim two points on Tuesday. The team has won just five of their last 10 games, but they’ve been able to hold on to first place in the Central Division. Dallas is currently two points ahead of second-place St. Louis, which is 7-3-0 in its last 10 games, and four points ahead of the third-place Blackhawks. If the Stars are to hang on through the last few weeks of the season and win a division title for the first time since the 2005-06 season, they’ll have to do so without one of the league’s top players. Tyler Seguin, who ranks fourth in the NHL with 73 points, will be out three to four weeks with a partially torn Achilles.
2. MARCH WOES
March hasn’t been too kind to the defending Stanley Cup champions. In nine games this month, the Blackhawks have just three victories. Chicago picked up a point against the Wild on Sunday, but they’ve lost five of its last six games. Entering this month, the Blackhawks had the top power-play unit in the league, and while they still rank fourth, they haven’t scored a power-play goal in their last 17 opportunities. A late-season slump isn’t new for the Blackhawks; they dropped four straight to end the season a year ago. However, with the standings so close in the West, every point is important as six of the seven Central Division teams are still fighting for advantageous seeding. Chicago has a favorable schedule down the stretch in that regard, as six of their remaining nine opponents would be out of the playoffs if the postseason started today.
3. BENN THERE, DONE THAT
While they won’t have Seguin, the Stars still feature the NHL’s second-leading scorer, Jamie Benn. The left wing’s 80 points trail only Patrick Kane, who paces the league with 92. Benn didn’t tally a point in the Stars’ 3-0 victory over the Islanders on Saturday, but he does have nine points over the past seven games; that includes a three-point performance against the Lightning and a two-point night in Dallas’ last meeting with the Blackhawks. The Art Ross Trophy winner from a year ago has tallied seven goals and 14 assists in 26 career games against the Blackhawks, including five points in four games this season. Benn will be tasked with keeping the Stars offense rolling in his absence, but he had practice in the same situation last year, compiling 11 points (4G, 7A) in 10 games when Seguin missed three weeks with a knee injury.
4. PLUMBING THE DEPTHS
Both goals in Sunday’s loss to Minnesota came from Chicago’s fourth liners, as Andrew Shaw and Richard Panik flashed some moves to go along with a hefty forecheck. Head Coach Joel Quenneville said afterwards that Shaw and Panik’s line, which featured Andrew Desjardins at left wing, was his team’s most dangerous line, and the possession numbers back up his analysis. Panik, Shaw and Desjardins were Chicago’s top three forwards in terms of shot attempt differential at even strength, led by Shaw’s +10 (per hockeystats.ca).
“He had lot going on for us tonight,” Coach Q said. Shaw displayed some high skill on his 12th goal of the year; he toe-dragged around Ryan Suter, Minnesota’s best defenseman before beating Devan Dubnyk with a wrist shot. The goal was Shaw’s first in 11 games and highlighted a strong overall effort.
5. GREAT SCOTT
Since Corey Crawford went down with an upper-body injury, Scott Darling has made three consecutive starts, posting a 1-1-1 record and gaining confidence in his game. “I’m happy to be playing,” Darling said after Sunday’s loss. “It’s good for me to get a little momentum going.” Darling, who picked up his second career shutout last Friday in Winnipeg, has allowed just four even-strength goals in his past three starts. Despite losing in a shootout, the Blackhawks were quick to compliment their backup goalie, with Shaw stating that Darling was the team’s first star for stopping 32 of 34 shots and keeping the team in the game.
THE FINAL WORD
The Blackhawks and Stars will meet Tuesday for the fifth and final time in the regular season, and if recent history means anything, this should be a high-scoring affair. In their first tilt of the year, the Blackhawks dropped a 4-0 decision, which was the lowest-scoring game in the season series. Points are at a premium this time of year, and there’s even more emphasis put on division games, so a strong effort is needed on Tuesday, as the Blackhawks have a chance to pick up a valuable two points while keeping Dallas from padding their division lead. Also, with this being the final meeting of the regular schedule, a win could help Chicago gain some confidence against a fast, dynamic offensive team that they may end up seeing again in the postseason.