Before the Road Trip of Gloom in March™, there was a possibility for the race to the playoffs to come down to these final two games of the season between the Blackhawks and Stars, the first of which is on Sunday night at the United Center.
However, both teams fumbled down the stretch as the Blackhawks were eliminated from playoff contention last week while the Stars’ playoffs hopes ended with the Predators’ win over the Hurricanes Saturday night.
Officially, these final games have little impact on standings, but unofficially these games definitely have meaning to the Blackhawks: they want to finish the season out strong. They took steps towards that goal by defeating the Hurricanes on Thursday, so they will be looking to carry that momentum into this upcoming back-to-back against the Stars.
The Stars probably feel pretty deflated at this point. They managed to snap a five-game losing streak to beat the Lightning 5-2 Friday night to keep their playoff dreams alive, only for those hopes to be dashed the next night without even playing another game. It’s especially upsetting considering the Stars made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final just a season ago. However, like the Blackhawks, there’s no time for the Stars to dwell on the disappointing end to the season if they want to close out on a positive note.
The Stars are still a formidable group, possessing a top-six oozing with talent and highly competent core on the blue line. Against the Lightning, forward Joe Pavelski did what he’s done all season: led the Stars in production by having a four-point night (2 G, 2 A). His linemates — Roope Hintz (1 G, 2 A) and Joel Kiviranta (1 G, 1 A) — each had multi-point games as well. Hintz is someone the Blackhawks will want to watch out for as he has eight points (4 G, 4 A) in six games against them this season. The other Blackhawks killer has been rookie forward sensation Jason Robertson, who has collected seven points (2 G, 5 A) in the same span. Powering offense from the back end is defensemen John Klingberg with two goals of his own versus the Blackhawks this season.
The Stars recently received a boost in the form of returning forward Tyler Seguin, who has missed all but the last three games while recovering from labral repair surgery. He’s scored two goals so far while averaging 17:04 of ice time and doesn’t look like he missed a beat.
After their come-from-behind 2-1 victory over the division-leading Hurricanes, the Blackhawks should be feeling motivated as they enter these final two games. Despite having nearly four months between NHL games, goaltender Collin Delia got his first win of the season on Thursday with 36 saves on 37 shots. Rookie defensemen Riley Stillman scored his first NHL goal to tie the game late in the third period and skated a season-high of 24:25, while forward Alex DeBrincat notched his team-leading 29th goal of the season in overtime. Other rookie defensemen were also noticeable in positive ways: Wyatt Kalynuk had one assist and overall solid performance in 23:04 time-on-ice while Alec Regula showed poise in his NHL debut.
The Blackhawks have performed well against the Stars this season, with a 4-2-0 record so far. In those six games, the Blackhawks top trio of forwards were key contributors as usual: Patrick Kane had 6 points (1 G, 5 A), DeBrincat had 5 points (4 G, 1 A), and Dominik Kubalik had 4 points (3 G, 1 A). Special teams also played deciding roles in the games against the Stars, as the Blackhawks both scored four power-play goals and allowed four power-play goals against. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks will likely be without defenseman Duncan Keith and forward Brett Connolly, who are dealing with concussions sustained on Thursday night.
Before the season even started, the Blackhawks front office said that the focus of this season was to be on evaluating and developing the young players on the Blackhawks. While we can quibble on whether or not that mission was fully executed as expected, the fact is the Blackhawks have rotated in 20 players that were aged 25 or younger at some point during the season, including a league leading time-on-ice played by rookies. Despite finishing the season with a worse record than last year, there are a lot of positives in those individual player performances. Whether you’re talking about star-in-the-making DeBrincat, break-out fan-favorite forward Brandon Hagel, or the much-improved defensemen Adam Boqvist, there’s a sense of optimism for the future that has been lacking the last few seasons. Hopefully the Blackhawks and their young players can prove that optimism isn’t misplace in these final two games and use that momentum to build on for next season.
As Queen once sang: It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth ... Here’s to the future, for the dreams of youth.
Tale of the Tape Section
Blackhawks — Statistic — Stars
48.45% (22nd) — Corsi For — 52.23% (9th)
44.86% (31st) — Expected goals for — 52.93 (8th)
2.80 (17th) — Goals per game — 52.93 (19th)
3.28 (24th) — Goals against per game — 2.59 (7th)
49.9% (17th) — Faceoffs — 49.5% (20th)
21.9% (11th) — Power play — 23.4% (7th)
77.0% (27th) — Penalty kill — 78.9% (20th)
Projected lineups (subject to change)
DeBrincat — Suter — Kane
Kubalik — Kurashev — Hagel
Gaudette — Kampf — Hinostroza
Hardman — Entwistle — ??
Stillman — Murphy
?? — Regula
Zadorov — Kalynuk
Kiviranta — Hintz — Pavelski
Robertson — Benn — Seguin
Cogliano — Faksa — Cameau
Kero — Dickinson — Gurianov
Lindell — Klingberg
Oleksiak — Heiskanen
Hanley — Sekera
How to watch
When: 6 p.m.
Where: United Center, Chicago
TV: NBC Sports Chicago, NHL Network
Live stream: NBC Sports app, NHL.TV