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Stars bracing for tight Central race

Dallas set for key stretch against division opponents

by Arpon Basu @arponbasu / Managing Editor LNH.com

BROSSARD, Que. - Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn was asked to describe the race against the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues to win the Central Division, and all he could do was laugh.

"It's a joke," Benn said. "If I had one word to describe it, it's a joke."

Aside from being reminiscent of an infamous postgame rant by his coach Lindy Ruff a decade ago, Benn's reaction shows just how rare it is to have three of the top teams in the NHL duking it out in the same division.

Well, the joke is about to get very serious this week.

After the Stars face the injury-riddled Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; SNE, RDS, FS-SW, NHL.TV) their next two opponents will be the Blackhawks at home Friday and the Blues at home Saturday. The Blackhawks and the Blues next play against each other in St. Louis on Wednesday.

Entering Monday night, the Blackhawks and Stars each had 87 points in 67 games (Chicago has two more regulations wins, with the Blues at 85 points.

The Blues are fourth overall in the NHL standings and third in their own division, which might be what made Benn laugh.

"It's three competitive teams going at it and you've got the defending champs in there that seem to find a way to do it every year," Benn said. "It's going to be a tight race down the stretch and every point matters from here on out."

What the Stars, Blackhawks and Blues do against each other this week could go a long way toward determining who ultimately wins the division and avoids what may turn out to be the most compelling series of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the second and third place teams in the Central.

"It's hard to say it's not the hardest division to win, so if you have the opportunity to win it you want to win it," Stars center Tyler Seguin said. "You look at the head to head in the first round, you'd rather be sitting in the first-place position than having to battle that second-third in the first round."

The Stars enter this crucial week shorthanded, missing top defenseman John Klingberg and forward Patrick Sharp, though it's not clear yet if either or both of them will be available in time for the game against the Blackhawks on Friday. Klingberg is day-to-day with a lower-body injury and Sharp was expected to miss 5-7 days with a lower-body injury as of March 3, which would mean he would be back in time to face the Blackhawks.

Their health will help the Stars determine just how competitive they are in the division when they face Chicago and St. Louis on back-to-back nights.

"I think it depends whether we're healthy at that time, whether we have a Klingberg back in the lineup, a Sharp back in the lineup," Ruff said. "You can measure your team, but we're measuring it without our biggest asset on defense and one of our top offensive guys up front. It is a measuring point. We've tightened our game up in the absence of those two guys, which has allowed us to win a couple of games."

A big reason the Stars have been able to tighten up of late is the addition of defenseman Kris Russell, who was traded to Dallas by the Calgary Flames on Feb. 29 for defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka, forward prospect Brett Pollock and a second-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Russell, averaging more than 24 minutes in his past two games for Dallas, has blocked three shots in each of his past two games, showing off a skill he was most known for with Calgary and which has quickly impressed his new teammates with the Stars.

"I think in Calgary he was probably forced to block a lot more shots than he's like to. But he's definitely a great shot blocker. He gets in those lanes like not a lot of guys can, so that's a credit to him," said defenseman Alex Goligoski, who was partnered with Russell in Dallas' 2-1 win at the Ottawa Senators on Sunday.

"A big shot block will get guys up on the bench more than almost anything. It's just being a good teammate and laying it on the line, everyone in the locker room respects that and it gets everyone else going."

Russell acknowledged he's not called upon to step in front of pucks quite as often with Dallas as he was with Calgary. In 51 games with the Flames, Russell blocked 3.4 shots per game, the highest average in the NHL. In three games with the Stars, Russell has blocked seven shots.

"This is a team that has more possession, holds on to the puck a little bit more, so in that regard maybe a little bit," Russell said. "But at the same time there's always opportunities to block shots. I'm just trying to work at the system; they play a more up-tempo system so I'm trying to get in the game that way and help this team win."

That help will be most appreciated this week, with the Stars attempting to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack atop the Central Division.

Ruff did not point to shot-blocking when asked about Russell, but said rather it was his ability to move the puck that had the Stars most interested in trading for him. Now, with Russell and perhaps Klingberg back in time for a big weekend at home, maybe the Stars can lay claim to the toughest division crown in the NHL.

"It's just going to be one heck of a race," Ruff said. "We've played some great hockey against those teams, but it's going to be a race to the finish. St. Louis is built a little bit heavier than us, Chicago's a very similar team to us. They create a lot on the rush, whereas St. Louis can create a little bit more by being heavy down low. I think in the end, you go head to head and it's who's going to win the majority of those games is going to be able to push ahead and finish higher."

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