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Blackhawks face defending Central champs this weekend

by Emerald Gao / chicagoblackhawks.com

The Blackhawks are in Dallas to begin a weekend home-and-home series against the defending Central Division champion Stars. Chicago is trending in the right direction, with four consecutive victories culminating in a 4-0 result over Colorado on Thursday. The Blackhawks got two goals from Marian Hossa, three clean penalty kills and a 38-save performance from Corey Crawford to improve their record to 7-3-1 and claim sole ownership of the division lead for the time being.

The Stars started slower out of the game this year, going 4-4-2 in their first 10 games, but claimed their most convincing win thus far with a 6-2 thumping of St. Louis on Thursday; the win broke a three-game losing streak. Special teams has let Dallas down, as they rank in the bottom third in the NHL in both the power play (14.3 percent) and penalty kill (75.7 percent).

Dallas has fallen victim to the injury bug early in 2016-17, which hasn't helped matters, and they're now missing four forwards who are expected to play important roles for a team with title hopes. Cody Eakin hasn't skated yet this season, while Ales Hemsky and Mattias Janmark are expected to miss most of the regular schedule, and former Blackhawk Patrick Sharp hasn't played since Oct. 21 due to concussion symptoms. Together, the four contributed 64 goals and 94 assists last season, and the Stars have certainly struggled to replace their production.

DYNAMIC DUO
Dallas' forward depth may have taken a hit due to injuries, but the Stars still boast a pair of superstars who can take over a game. Captain Jamie Benn, who ranked second to Patrick Kane in scoring last season with 89 points, has eight points in 10 games while leading team forwards in ice time (19:33 per game). His regular center, Tyler Seguin, has been even more productive, recording 12 points and a team-best 37 shots on goal in 10 games; he picked up four assists against St. Louis on Thursday, while Benn notched three. The duo has been dangerous on a power play that's been otherwise anemic, with four goals between them; the rest of the Stars team has produced just two tallies. Benn and Seguin are joined on Dallas' top line by Patrick Eaves, who netted a hat trick against the Blackhawks last season.

NET VALUE
Goaltending has greatly affected both teams' results so far this season, for better or worse. Corey Crawford has been superb for the Blackhawks, collecting his second shutout of the season and his fourth straight win. He's allowed a total of five goals in his last five games; even more impressively, only one of those five goals has been at even strength. While it's unlikely that Crawford can sustain a .982 EV save percentage for the whole season, it's clear that he's been a big reason for Chicago's climb to the top of the division over the last two weeks.

The Stars' issues in net have been well documented over the last couple of years, and they haven't exactly been resolved, with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi still splitting starting duties, with mixed results. Niemi has a better record at 3-1-1, but with a middling .899 SV% and 3.34 goals-against average. Lehtonen has been slightly better at .900 and 2.65, but only has one win in four starts this season. With diminished firepower due to the team's injuries, Dallas needs their goaltending tandem to put together a string of improved results if they want to keep pace in a competitive Central Division.

KLING OF THE HILL
The Stars lost veteran defensemen Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski to free agency during the offseason, putting more pressure on John Klingberg to take another big step forward this year. The 24-year-old shared third among league defensemen last year with 48 assists and ranked fifth with 58 points, but started slow along with the rest of the team, logging just two helpers in his first six outings. He does have four points in four tilts since, including a two-goal game against the Blues for his first tallies of the season, and seems to be heating up just as the Stars need him to be a true No. 1 on their blue line.

NOTABLE INJURIES
CHI: Andrew Desjardins (lower body), Trevor van Riemsdyk (upper body)
DAL: Cody Eakin (knee), Ales Hemsky (hip), Mattias Janmark (knee), Patrick Sharp (concussion)

LINES

Panik -- Toews -- Kane
Panarin -- Anisimov -- Hossa
Motte -- Kruger -- Hartman
Rasmussen -- Schmaltz -- Tootoo

Keith -- Campbell
Kempny -- Seabrook
Forsling -- Hjalmarsson

Crawford
Darling

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