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Stars, Blackhawks jockey for playoff positioning

by David Kalan
BLACKHAWKS (38-24-8) at STARS (37-25-8)


Last 10:
Chicago 7-1-2; Dallas 6-2-2

Season series: Dallas leads the season series 2-1 after taking the most recent meeting between these teams 4-3 in a shootout on Feb. 11 at American Airlines Center.

Big story: With the season down to its final weeks, few games are without enormous playoff implications, but Thursday's showdown between the Blackhawks and Stars just might be bigger than most. Chicago and Dallas are right in the thick of it and any win or loss against another playoff-caliber team could be the difference between home-ice in the first round or watching from home.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks: Monday night Chicago looked to be at a turning point in its late-season run. After an eight-game winning streak that firmly thrust the Hawks back into the top eight, Chicago was winless in three straight games and trailing at home to San Jose after the first period. But with Patrick Sharp and his four assists leading the way, the Hawks responded with a five-goal second period -- punctuated by Patrick Kane's 100th career tally -- that not only chased former Blackhawk goalie Antti Niemi, but also may have righted the ship for the remaining 12 games this season.

That said, Chicago is by no means guaranteed a postseason berth. The Hawks are sixth in the West with an outside shot at the Central title, but are just three points above eighth place making life still very tenuous in the City of Broad Shoulders. Fortunately, Chicago seems to have its biggest horses going at full stride for the final stretch. Kane, whose 100th tally made him the third-fastest Blackhawk in history to reach the mark, has 26 points in his last 21 games, and captain Jonathan Toews has been so good he may start to warrant MVP consideration, tallying 33 points in the same stretch.

Dallas is right behind the Hawks in seventh place, with just two points separating it and Chicago, but the Stars, too, have their place in the postseason field hanging on the knife edge. The Stars are just one point above the eight spot, but a win could give them a measure of relief as a defeat over Chicago would hop them into sixth place by virtue of a tiebreaker.

Of course, winning Thursday would also be a much needed change of course for Dallas. The Stars have won just one of their last four games, and a 6-3 loss to San Jose on Tuesday did not help matters. While Mike Ribeiro has helped push the offense with 13 points in his last 13 games, the Stars could use some more production from Brad Richards, who has 2 points in four games since returning from a concussion. Some better goaltending wouldn't hurt either, as starter Kari Lehtonen has given up three goals or more in four of his last five starts.

Who's hot:
Obscured by the impressive production of Kane and Toews lately, Marian Hossa has been in a groove himself for Chicago, with 15 points in the last 11 games. … In Dallas, 21-year-old Jamie Benn is starting to make GM Joe Nieuwendyk look awfully good for banking on his young depth at forward when he dealt James Neal earlier this season. Benn has 11 points in his last eight outings.

Injury report: Dave Bolland (concussion) and Brian Campbell (leg injury) are both listed as questionable for Chicago. … Dallas may be without Loui Eriksson, who left Tuesday's game against San Jose with an upper-body injury, and Adam Burish, who did not play Tuesday due to a lower-body injury.

Stat pack: If Dallas wins Thursday, the Blackhawks and Stars will have identical records right down to the first tiebreaker of regulation and overtime wins. According to NHL rules, that would give the Stars a higher seed if the season ended after 71 games because a win would give them more total points in games between the two teams. Getting that tiebreaker could prove vital for Dallas, as the final tiebreaker would be goal differential, a category Chicago takes with no contest. The Blackhawks have a plus-36 differential this season, while the feast-or-famine Stars check in with a surprising minus-3.

Puck drop:
There is a very good chance both Chicago and Dallas will be in the postseason this spring, and a decent chance they could play each other as well. But in a conference where nothing is certain and in a game where playoff implications abound, if one of these teams is playing golf in April, they could be looking back at Thursday night as the reason why.

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