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Around the West: Injuries shaping Western race

by Dan Rosen
During the  first five months of the season, Around the West has been dedicated to each team in the Western Conference. Now with the playoff race absolutely on fire and probably the most interesting on-ice story in the NHL now, the focus is being narrowed to some of the biggest newsmakers, the teams you should be watching as the  conclusion to the regular season approaches.

This week, a deeper look at Dallas, Calgary, Chicago, Anaheim, San Jose:

GM Joe Nieuwendyk is gambling that Brad Richards will help the Stars get into the playoffs and maybe even make a deep run this season. Richards first has to get back into the lineup, and there's probably a 50-50 chance it could happen Friday night in Anaheim.

Richards has missed the past seven games with concussion-like symptoms, but he's practiced with the club the past two days, including Thursday in Peoria, Ariz., and appears to be on his way back to the lineup. Richards is obviously essential to the Stars if they want to make the playoffs. They're currently ninth in the Western Conference with a huge game Friday against the Ducks.

Dallas has won three-straight since losing the first four games that Richards had to miss. It'll be interesting to see how they respond to Tuesday's dramatic win against the Coyotes on Jamie Benn's goal with five seconds left in regulation.

In the bigger picture, the Stars also have games at San Jose and Los Angeles before returning home for a well-timed seven-game homestand. The key is surviving this California road trip because the games won't be getting any easier -- despite being played at home.

Every game Dallas has between now and its end-of-the-season home-and-home with Colorado is against teams either currently in strong playoff position or jockeying for position in the ultra-competitive Western Conference race. The Stars still have three games left against Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles and one each against Chicago, Nashville, Phoenix, Calgary, Minnesota, Columbus and Philadelphia.

Mum was the word Thursday on Brendan Morrison's potential knee injury. The top-line center went for an MRI late in the afternoon and the team gave no official report on the severity of the injury or how long Morrison will be out. However, it's expected that Michael Backlund will play Friday night in Morrison's place on the top line.

If Morrison's injury is a long-term deal, the Flames could be in deep trouble. Morrison has been a lightning rod for this team's 19-6-6 run during the past 31 games. Morrison has been the only center who has found chemistry with top wingers Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. Replacing him might be an impossible task for coach Brent Sutter.

Morrison was hurt late in Wednesday's 6-4 loss to Chicago. He actually glided on one leg from the ice to the bench because he couldn't put any pressure on his knee. The Flames are still hoping he's OK and that the injury won't cost him too many games.

Calgary has been able to get back in the playoff race because it has been relatively healthy, but this injury comes at the worst time for the team. They fell to No. 8 in the conference Thursday despite being idle.

The defending champs have been waiting all season to put together the kind of streak they're on right now. They've won six in a row to jump from no. 11 to fourth in a matter of a few weeks. A lot of the credit must be given to Chicago's current line combinations and defensive pairings, which were put together six games ago when assistant Mike Haviland was running the bench while Joel Quenneville was in the hospital.

Quenneville already had his loaded-up top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp going for five games prior to the Hawks' current winning streak, but using Dave Bolland with Marian Hossa, inserting Ryan Johnson into the lineup in a fourth-line center role and putting Duncan Keith with 19-year-old rookie Nick Leddy has turned out to be pure genius by the Hawks coaching staff.

The top line is simply rolling, averaging 4 points a game during the past six games. Hossa has a goal in each of the past five games. Bolland has 2 goals and seems to finally be lifting his game at just the right time as he gets comfortable in his second-line role. Johnson has contributed both on the score sheet and off it. He won 11 of his 12 faceoffs in Wednesday's 6-4 win against Calgary.

Leddy is playing with more confidence knowing Keith, the reigning Norris Trophy winner, is skating alongside him and that has freed up Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson to play a physical game. The pairing of Chris Campoli and Brian Campbell showed promise Wednesday. Campbell has arguably been the Hawks most consistent blue-liner this season.

The third line of Michael Frolik, Jake Dowell and Troy Brouwer was quiet until Wednesday. Frolik had his best game as a Hawk and finally got rewarded with a goal and 2 assists. He could be huge for Chicago down the stretch because he has skill rarely found on lower lines.

The importance of Anaheim's 2-1 overtime win against Detroit on Wednesday night can't be stressed enough. This was huge on so many levels, none of which, by the way, have anything to do with what the teams around them in the standings did Thursday.

Anaheim finally stopped the bleeding from a five-game losing streak with Monday's 3-2 win against Colorado, but the challenge was to build on that against one of the League's best teams. The Ducks did it with flair as Bobby Ryan scored the OT-winner on a penalty shot 2:50 into the extra session.

However, it's what the Ducks did before that penalty shot that is truly notable. They were undisciplined and gave the Red Wings nine power plays, including one just 12 seconds before the end of regulation, but they killed off eight of them, with the most important being Detroit's 4-on-3 in the first 1:48 of overtime.

The Ducks will wind up getting burned if they give up that many power plays, but the strong showing by their penalty kill, No. 22 in the League, is an example of the desperation with which they are playing.

The road continues Friday against Dallas in another huge four-point swing game. Anaheim hosts Vancouver on Sunday.

The Sharks are for real. They are legit. They are a contender. Those truths have become self-evident in the face of  San Jose's eight-game winning streak, which continued with Thursday's 3-1 victory against Detroit.All of a sudden, the same team that just a few weeks ago was loitering with the bottom five teams in the Western Conference is now challenging for second in a very fluid race. The Sharks are three points behind the Wings with 17 games remaining.

Patrick Marleau has come on of late and Dany Heatley, with 2 goals in Thursday's win, now has 4 points during his past three games. Goalie Antti Niemi, recently rewarded with a new four-year contract, has been nearly unbeatable. He has 12 wins and has allowed only 23 goals during the past 14 games.

What also shouldn't be overlooked is the Sharks' 17-3-1 record since center Joe Pavelski returned on Jan. 13 from his lower-body injury. San Jose was 2-6 in the eight games Pavelski missed. 

It's ridiculous to say that the Sharks go as Pavelski goes, but no one can deny how much he does so much for this surging club.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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