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Stars set for Central showdown against Blackhawks

by Brian Compton

Two of the top teams in the NHL go head-to-head prior to the Christmas break when the Chicago Blackhawks visit the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET; CSN-CH, FS-SW+).

Dallas (24-7-2) has a six-point lead atop the Central Division and Western Conference, led by forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Benn (22 goals, 22 assists), who was the League's leading scorer last season, and Seguin (18 goals, 26 assists) have 44 points apiece.

"He's pretty good at hockey," Stars forward Jason Spezza said of Benn. "There's no doubt about it, he's our leader. He's got a great temperature for the room, and he has skills to back it up. He can take over games at certain times. He's grown even since I've gotten here as a leader. He's got all the traits of a great leader."

Chicago (20-11-4) trails Dallas by eight points in the Central, but has won six of 16 road games this season. Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane leads the League with 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists).

Here are other games that should garner plenty of attention:

Monday, Dec. 21: Toronto Maple Leafs at Colorado Avalanche (9 p.m. ET; SNO, ALT) -- With their 5-0 win against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday, the Maple Leafs are 8-4-1 against the Western Conference this season. Toronto has scored four or more goals in each of its past three games. Colorado has won five in a row. Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov is on a personal six-game win streak and has a .970 save percentage over that span.

Tuesday, Dec. 22: Montreal Canadiens at Minnesota Wild (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, RDS, SNE) -- The Canadiens had an 11-point lead in the Atlantic Division less than three weeks ago; the top six teams are now separated by six points. Montreal is 3-7-1 without injured goaltender Carey Price and has scored 19 goals over the 11 games. Wild forward Zach Parise has a seven-game point streak (four goals, six assists), his longest in nearly four years.

Tuesday, Dec. 22: San Jose Sharks at Los Angeles Kings (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN) -- The Sharks wrap up a five-game road trip at Staples Center, where the Kings are 11-5-0 this season. San Jose is 2-1-1 on the trip following a 4-3 overtime loss at the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday. Los Angeles will play its final home game of 2015; the Kings begin a four-game road trip when they return from Christmas break.

Saturday, Dec. 26: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, TVA Sports, CITY, CSN-DC) -- The Capitals are beginning to create some separation atop the Metropolitan Division. Washington scored six unanswered goals in a 7-3 win at Madison Square Garden on Sunday and moved eight points ahead of the New York Rangers. The Capitals have won five in a row.

Sunday, Dec. 27: Edmonton Oilers at Calgary Flames (9 p.m. ET; SN) -- The Battle of Alberta resumes at Scotiabank Saddledome. It's the second of a four-game homestand for the Flames, who have lost back-to-back games following a seven-game winning streak. Edmonton has been outscored 13-3 in three straight losses.


Frederik Andersen, Anaheim Ducks -- Between a bout with the flu and the strong play of goalie John Gibson, it was nearly a month between starts for Andersen before he got the nod against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday. He made 21 saves in Anaheim's 2-1 win.

"He made all the saves he had to make," coach Bruce Boudreau told the Ducks website. "He was good. I didn't think he had to be spectacular. There were a couple good saves from them from close in, but he was steady. We had a lot of faith in him."

Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maple Leafs -- An awfully rough start to the season resulted in a brief demotion to the American Hockey League, but Bernier shut out the Kings in a 5-0 win on Saturday, his first NHL victory since April 5.

"I have had a tough time, but I have been saying if you stick to the program and you work hard, at one point you'll get rewarded," Bernier said. "I thought [Saturday] it felt really good, but at the same time the guys played really good. That's not an easy team and we came out and battled and played a tight game."

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues -- The star forward has played a big role in the Blues' three-game winning streak and has scored in each of the past five games (a career high). He has nine points over that span. Tarasenko has a goal in seven of the past eight games.

"It's a pretty good feeling," Tarasenko said. "I think it's pushing you to move forward. I think this shows you (that) you can play with these guys and you can score these goals. It's a team game. My teammates make it for me."


Tanner Glass, New York Rangers -- Coach Alain Vigneault is trying everything to get the Rangers out of their funk; on Sunday, he had Glass on a line with Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes. New York had a 3-1 lead before allowing six unanswered goals. The Rangers are 3-9-2 in their past 14 games and have allowed five or more goals in five of their past six.

"I am not sure that it's as much mental as it is execution, it's probably a combination of both," Vigneault said. "There's no doubt in my mind that the answer is in that dressing room."

Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens -- The Canadiens captain was reunited with David Desharnais and Dale Weise at practice Sunday, less than 24 hours after a 6-2 loss at the Stars. Montreal is 11-11-3 following its 9-0-0 start.

"We started the year with nine wins in a row. I don't know why we don't have confidence," Pacioretty said. "I don't know why we forgot how to play the game, but we have to find answers really quick."


Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson played 36:34 in a 5-2 loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday. … The Pittsburgh Penguins are 0-4-0 and have been outscored 15-4 since Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach on Dec. 12. "Am I disappointed? Yes. Makes me sick, actually," general manager Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "More sick than I've ever been in my career when I've managed a team. I feel for the fans. I feel for everybody." … New York Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy, who signed a seven-year contract last February, has yet to score a goal in 34 games this season. He appeared to score Dec. 8 in Philadelphia, but the goal was eventually credited to Brock Nelson. Is he baffled by this drought? "Maybe a little bit, but just keep doing the things that I've been doing; getting pucks to the net, creating opportunities," Leddy said. "Hopefully one will find the back of the net soon."


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