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Niemi in goal vs. Blackhawks; Spezza out week to week

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

It’s a showdown at American Airlines Center tonight as the Dallas Stars take on the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks (35-16-4) lead the Western Conference and Central Division with 74 points, and the Stars (33-14-5) are second in the West and Central with 71 points.

The Stars have won three straight and are 4-1-0 in their past five games. Chicago has won three of four (3-1-0) and is on a 15-3-0 run since Dec. 29.

“This should be a heck of a game,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “Both teams are playing well.”

“It’s a big game as far as the standings with the Stars three points behind Chicago with three games in hand.

“This time of year you look at the schedule, your division and your conference and points are valuable even more now this time of year,” said Stars forward Patrick Sharp. “You play a team like Chicago that we are chasing, you want to try to win those games best we can, but it is also a good test for us.”

There is plenty of star power in this one with the league’s top three scorers on the ice. Chicago’s Patrick Kane leads the NHL in goals (31) and points (75). Stars captain Jamie Benn is third in goals (28) and second in points (58). Stars center Tyler Seguin is fourth in goals (27) and third in points (55).

This is the second of five meetings between the two teams. The Stars won the first one, 4-0, in Dallas on Dec. 22. That game was scoreless through the first 29 minutes when the Stars scored to take a 1-0 lead and then tacked on three more goals in the third period.

“I looked at the last game, and it was a real tight game until the third period,” Ruff said. “I think tonight is going to be a tight game unless someone can push through and get a little edge.”

Antti Niemi, who pitched a 20-save shutout in that December win, will get the start in goal tonight for the Stars. It will be his sixth straight start.

The Stars will start life without Jason Spezza, who is out with an upper body injury. Spezza, who was injured in Thursday’s game at Colorado, was put on injured reserve and is going to be out a while.

“Now, it looks like week to week,” Ruff said. “It’s going to be more than a few games.”

“We’ve got some flexibility in the middle with [Mattias] Janmark, [Radek] Faksa and [Cody] Eakin. There are a lot of options there,” Ruff said. “The last game, different guys in the middle of the ice really played well for us.”

Janmark centered the second line at this morning’s skate with Patrick Sharp and Valeri Nichushkin on his wings. Faksa, who was called up yesterday from the AHL, centered the fourth line with Vernon Fiddler and Colton Sceviour. Eakin remainined on a line with Antoine Roussel and Ales Hemsky.

There are no changes expected on defense. The Stars will go with the same six defensemen in Thursday’s win over the Avalanche. Jordie Benn and Patrik Nemeth skated as the third pair in this morning’s skate.

Jyrki Jokipakka, Jamie Oleksiak and Travis Moen all skated late, so they appear to be tonight’s scratches.

Corey Crawford will get the start in goal tonight for the Blackhawks. He is 30-12-2 with a 2.15 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. The Blackawks have won their first two games out of the All-Star break, outshooting their opposition 82-51.

“I think that we did some good things. I think it started by just putting the puck at the net,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “Certainly have traffic at the net and then shots, picking up loose pucks and tenacity in front of the net creates zone time and possession as well. But I think we were strong on the puck, and we had balance on our lines and then we checked well.”

Who: Chicago Blackhawks at Dallas Stars

Where: American Airlines Center

When: 7:00 p.m.

TV: Fox Sports Southwest Plus

Radio: The Ticket 1310 AM/96.7 FM

Jamie BennTyler SeguinPatrick Eaves

Patrick SharpMattias JanmarkValeri Nichushkin

Antoine RousselCody EakinAles Hemsky

Vernon FiddlerRadek FaksaColton Sceviour

Alex Goligoski
John Klingberg

Johnny OduyaJason Demers

Patrik NemethJordie Benn

Antti Niemi

Kari Lehtonen

Jason Spezza (upper body)

Scratched: Jyrki Jokipakka, Jamie Oleksiak, Travis Moen

Andrew Shaw – Jonathan Toews – Marian Hossa

Artemi Panarin – Artem Anisimov – Patrick Kane

Andrew Desjardins – Philip Danault – Teuvo Teravainen

Brandon Mashinter – Dennis Rasmussen – Richard Panik

Duncan Keith – Niklas Hjalmarsson

Erik Gustafsson – Brent Seabrook

Trevor van Riemsdyk – Michal Rozsival

Corey Crawford

Scott Darling

Scratched: Rob Scuderi, Jiri Sekac, Viktor Svedberg

Injured: Marcus Kruger (wrist)

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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