The Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars meet Friday with first place in the Central Division on the line. The two teams are currently tied for the top spot with 88 points through 68 games, although Chicago has the slight advantage with one more victory.
A win for the Hawks would be big given the implications for the divisional race. Chicago is not only tied for Dallas atop the division, but also has the St. Louis Blues just a point back with a few weeks remaining in the season. Getting that coveted first-place finish is important because it would allow the Hawks to avoid the dreaded first-round matchup between the division's No. 2 and No. 3 teams.
If the season ended today, the Hawks would get an opening series against the Colorado Avalanche to start the playoffs, which would undeniably be a more favorable matchup than Dallas or St. Louis. Even if the Hawks managed to get by the Stars or Blues in an opening series, it surely would leave the team a bit more banged up than compared to taking on the speedy, young Avs.
Marian Hossa will finally make his awaited return after missing a few weeks due to injury. The veteran sat out the team's 3-2 loss to the Blues on Friday after skating during practice.
Stars | Record: 40-28-8 | 88 points | Tied for 1st in Central Division
You know the deal with Dallas at this point. The Stars can score like nobody's business, using top-level talent like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp and John Klingberg to rack up goals. They're currently second in goals per game, third in shots on goal per game and sixth in power play percentage.
However, their elite offense is also coupled with a pretty middling defense. The Stars are 23rd in the league in goals allowed and, like the Hawks, they've struggled on the penalty kill. Except unlike Chicago, Dallas doesn't have a goalie putting up a career-year like Corey Crawford is. Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen have been serviceable splitting time between the pipes, but goaltending stands out as a weak spot for the Stars compared to some other big contenders.
But man, the Stars can score, and that makes it difficult every time you play them.
As for projected lines, Dallas blew up its usual grouping during practice on Thursday, so it's possible we see the team roll out a different look against the Hawks. Sharp and Klingberg will be sitting out. Former Hawks prospect Stephen Johns is also set to make his NHL debut against his former organization, so we'll get a glimpse at what Chicago might be missing out on as a result of including Johns in the Sharp trade.
Blackhawks: Marcus Kruger, Marian Hossa (gameday decision)
Stars: John Klingberg, Patrick Sharp, Jordie Benn, Jason Demers
How to watch
When: 7 p.m. CT
Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas
TV: CSN Chicago, NHL Network