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What to watch for as Stars meet Chicago for first time this season

The two longtime foes enter this home-and-home set having had to face similar learning curves

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

CHICAGO -- The Dallas Stars will try for just their second road winning streak of the season when they make their first visit to the Madhouse on Madison, otherwise known as the United Center, on Thursday night. The game marks the first of a home-and-home, with Chicago set to visit American Airlines Center on Saturday.

Here's what to watch for.


Momentum is only momentum if you're taking advantage of it

Or something like that. But the Stars are coming off their best road performance of the season in Tuesday's 3-0 win in Las Vegas against a Golden Knights team that had lost only once at home heading into the contest.

Radek Faksa provided all the offense the Stars needed with three goals in the second period, including two in the last minute, to pace the Stars. Ben Bishop was solid early on when he had to be, and he'll have to be sharp again as the Stars continue to be a team that struggles to find its footing early in games.

That is one of the reasons they are 4-8-1 on the road and have won back-to-back road games just once this season, and that was last month in Calgary and Vancouver.

The Stars still have their secret weapon on hand in the form of the fathers and mentors, who will complete their two-game visit. The Stars are now 6-1-2 since Jim Nill took over as general manager on the annual fathers' trip. Maybe it's like momentum -- it's only a thing if it's a thing -- but the players want very much to impress their dads, so there is something to the link between their presence and the team's level of play.

No doubt, these two games loom large in the short-term as the Stars were winless in five games against Chicago last season and are currently locked in a battle with the Blackhawks for a playoff berth.

"It means a little more than other games when you play a team that you're going to be battling with," Jason Spezza said. "It's inevitable that we're going to be fighting with them in the standings down the stretch. It's a big time for us. It's a big time for us as a team. It can really separate ourselves and make a move, or you can kind of stay in the pack, so it's important to try and chip away at these games."

Video: Patrick Sharp chat with Scott Burnside


Big line returns

Hitchcock will repatriate the big line of Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn after he had moved Benn to center and moved Seguin to a second unit almost a month ago. But this reunion will last only as long as the rest of the lineup continues to provide offensive support.

"Well, I think the rest of the guys are up and running so I think we're ready for it," Hitchcock said Thursday morning. "Ideally, this is what you want, but if we think we're being outplayed in the middle of the ice, we'll go right back.

"This is very short term and we'll evaluate it on short-term basis. It's really game to game. There is no plan other than this works for us, as long as the other players are adding to the mix and that's what's happened. And we've had other people jump forward and really help us here, so it's allowed us to put this line back together."

The trickle down is that Spezza will move back to center from the wing with Devin Shore and Mattias Janmark on the wings with him. The trio played together in the third period of Tuesday's win and were effective, although they did not score.

"Center's where I've played my whole career, so I think it's not an adjustment, it's just more remembering just little things you want to do differently when you're a center than when you're a winger," Spezza said. "We're used to changing throughout the game, throughout game to game, throughout periods. We were pretty good as a line in the third last game (and) we want to build off that."


Hanzal sidelined again

The disappointing season of stops and starts, but mostly stops, continues for center Martin Hanzal, who left the team after the Vegas game and returned to Dallas for evaluation.

It's not entirely clear what his injury is, or when he might return to the lineup.

"We don't even know what the injury is," Hitchcock said. "We don't even know where it is, to be honest with you. Just the general soreness comes up all the time and we've got to figure it out."

The impact has the potential to be significant. When Hanzal has played (he's appeared in 19 games for the 13-10-1 Stars), he's been a factor. He has given Hitchcock enormous flexibility in his lineup -- given that he plays against opposing teams' top centers, takes important draws, logs time-killing penalties and is on the second power-play unit.

"We've learned to deal with it, but it's been very disappointing for him, because he's been a very effective player every game he's played," Hitchcock said. "For whatever reason, he can't seem to stay healthy, and it's been a big swing for us because when you have players who play both ends of special teams, and play 5-on-5, there's a lot of ice time that gets allocated to that player, then you've got to get other people up to speed.

"I think that's the challenge facing us, but I know how disappointing it's been for Marty."

Remi Elie will rejoin the lineup and skate with Brett Ritchie and Gemel Smith on the team's fourth line.


Chicago, Dallas charting similar paths

The two longtime foes enter this home-and-home set having had to face similar learning curves through the first quarter of the season.

Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville has used multiple line combinations as he tries to find balance and chemistry in a lineup with lots of new faces, even if some of those faces are familiar ones like Brandon Saad and former Star Patrick Sharp, who returned to a Chicago team with whom he won three Stanley Cups in the offseason.

But in recent days, the team has started to round into form, going 4-1-1 in their last six. Dallas, by comparison, has won four of five.

Still, the two teams have struggled against Central Division foes thus far, with the Stars a miserable 1-6-0 against the Central and Chicago not much better at 2-5-0, adding even more urgency heading into this two-game set.

"For us, right now, it's about playing well and Chicago's playing as well as anybody right now," Hitchcock said. "They look like they've got a lot of their mojo back. They look like they've really got their speed game back. We're going to have to be ready for that."

The Dallas coach thinks this current version of the Blackhawks uses their speed to check in a way that is different than in the past.

"That's a big change. This is a way different team than any one I've coached against," Hitchcock said.

Video: Elie is back in the lineup


Defensive alignment and other things

Difficult to tell from the morning skate whether rookie Julius Honka will return to the lineup for a third straight game or Jamie Oleksiak will draw back in.

Thought Honka was much more poised in Tuesday's win, although Oleksiak did take lots of reps with Stephen Johns on Thursday morning. Hitchcock said they will take seven defenders into the pregame warmup and make a decision after that.

Ben Bishop will get his fifth straight start -- no surprise given his shutout performance on Tuesday.

Our guess is that Bishop plays both ends of the home-and-home and Kari Lehtonen draws back in Sunday for the Stars' visit to Denver, a game against the surprising Avalanche.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter at @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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