Stars try to maintain Pacific lead as they face Hawks
STARS (23-13-4) at BLACKHAWKS (21-17-3)
TV -- FS-Southwest (HD), CSN-Chicago+ (HD)
Last 10 -- Dallas 5-3-2; Chicago 5-5-0
Season series -- Chicago leads the season series 1-0 after knocking off Dallas 5-3 on Dec. 8 at the United Center.
Big story -- With one of these teams a surprise among the West's current top eight and the other a surprise team on the outside looking in, Wednesday is an opportunity for both Dallas and Chicago to reaffirm their places as contenders in the Western Conference.
Stars: Three of last year's entrants in the Stanley Cup playoffs ply their trades in the Pacific Division, and the Dallas Stars aren't one of them. Yet with the Stars approaching the mid-point of their 2010-11 campaign, here they are atop one of the toughest divisions in the League in what has to register as a surprise to most hockey insiders. Getting there can't be totally shocking, however, considering an offense that boasts one of the top point producers in the last decade in Brad Richards and a respected captain like Brenden Morrow.
Those two have lived up to their names of late -- Richards has 5 points in his last four games and Morrow has 3 goals and 1 assist in his last three times out -- but despite those performances the Stars' grip on first might be slipping. Dallas defeated St. Louis in its last game Sunday, but that 4-2 win was just the Stars' second in the last six games. While goaltender Kari Lehtonen picked up the win, he has still struggled of late, losing six of his last nine starts. If Lehtonen and the rest of the Stars don't return to their early-season form, the surprise division leaders could start dropping in the standings.
Blackhawks: Chicago sits eight points out of first in the Central and outside the West's playoff field due to a tiebreaker, but captain Jonathan Toews may have pulled off his biggest coup as a leader since winning the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring. With Captain Serious widely expected to miss at least two weeks due to injury after taking a rough hit against St. Louis last month, Toews returned to the ice five days later and scored a dramatic, if not bizarre game-winner against the Kings on Monday in his first game back.
That moment could serve as a springboard for Chicago, something that seems extremely necessary after an inconsistent first half for the defending champs. Marian Hossa might typify the bumpy road the team has trod so far. Having scored seven times in the first seven games of the season, the major acquisition from the 2009 offseason potted just his second goal in the last 19 games Monday night in L.A. Fortunately for Hossa, and Chicago, now that Toews is back in the fold the Blackhawks are as healthy as they've been all season, and the stunning logjam in the West means they are just two points from the relative stability of fourth in the conference.
Who's hot -- Loui Eriksson has 5 points over a current four-game point streak for Dallas. … Sharp has 5 goals and 2 assists in his last five games for Chicago.
Injury report -- With Toews back in the lineup, Chicago essentially has its full roster available for the first time in weeks. Dallas, too, should have a full squad Wednesday night.
Stat pack -- Chicago has had difficulty duplicating the same success it had at the United Center a season ago, when the Hawks went 29-8-4 in the Windy City. With the exceptional tightness of the West playoff race, the Blackhawks would do well to rediscover the comforts of home, where they're just 12-10-0 this season, as soon as possible. Chicago closes January playing seven of its last nine games at the UC, and awaiting the Hawks at the start of February is a six-game road trip that will chart a brutal course through Ohio, British Columbia, Alberta, Texas and Arizona. The Blackhawks have won just nine of the 19 games they've played away from Lake Michigan.
Puck drop -- As the second half begins playoff races will start to ramp up with some tremendous fervor, and no race in any sport may be as interesting as the historically congested standings of the NHL's Western Conference. Fourth place in the West is separated from 14th by a mere eight points, which means every night will dramatically impact a three-month game of musical chairs. With Dallas and Chicago both in the thick of it, a game like Wednesday's is particularly crucial. If the Stars and Blackhawks aren't careful, they might lose their seats.