If ever a midseason game could be considered crucial, the Thursday contest between the Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks at American Airlines Center qualifies.
The Minnesota Wild, the Stars and the Blackhawks are tied for fourth in the Central Division and the first Western Conference wild-card spot, each with 39 points.
Both Dallas and Chicago have experienced ups and downs in recent weeks, though the Blackhawks have been playing particularly well lately, winning five straight heading into Thursday. The surge immediately followed a five-game losing streak.
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Even though things are going well for the team, Chicago may have to scratch veteran forward Patrick Sharp — who played for Dallas the last two seasons — in an effort to interject more offense.
“We have some guys who have been out of the lineup for (some) games now, and you don’t want them sitting too long,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Up front, maybe there are guys we can move in and out and keep everyone going.”
The Stars have lost three straight, but they earned points in each of the past two games after falling in overtime against the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals.
Dallas looked at the home loss against Washington on Tuesday as a blown opportunity. The Stars took a 3-2 lead late on a goal by Alexander Radulov, but they allowed a game-tying goal 41 seconds later. The ensuing OT defeat was so frustrating to Stars coach Ken Hitchcock that his postgame press conference only lasted 19 seconds.
After practice on Wednesday, Hitchcock was ready to look past the loss.
“We’re moved on to Chicago, so we’re ready for Chicago,” Hitchcock said. “I said my piece yesterday, no coach likes to see that (goal allowed on the) next shift after a goal, but we’ve moved on to Chicago.”
For Hitchcock, a victory Thursday would mark a milestone.
With 799 career wins, Hitchcock is on the verge of becoming the third coach in NHL history to reach 800. Scotty Bowman holds the all-time record with 1,244 wins, while Quenneville is second with 868 wins.
Hitchcock doesn’t like to stew on milestones. Earlier this year when he passed Al Arbour for third all-time, he tried to speak around the moment and didn’t want the spotlight.
The bigger concerns for the coach is getting Dallas back into a solidified playoff position. The Stars are in the midst of playing nine of 10 games at home and five straight against division opponents.
“This is a big stretch for us,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve had good moments, but we haven’t reached that spot where we are playing consistently and getting production from our top lines.”
Dallas had been hopeful that Marc Methot would be back soon from a knee injury, but because of a couple of setbacks with timing, he will not play before the NHL’s three-day Christmas break.
Jan Rutta and Cody Franson have both returned from injuries for Chicago and could be back in the lineup on Thursday.
Ben Bishop will start in goal for Dallas, while Corey Crawford likely will be the starting goalie for Chicago.