Blackhawks

Stars secure playoff berth, but it's only Step 1

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Stars secure playoff berth, but it's only Step 1

The Stars have been faced with adversity during the most important time of the regular season: the stretch run.

Patrick Sharp and John Klingberg each missed two weeks around the same time due to injuries. Same with Jordie Benn, who returned Tuesday after missing three weeks with an injury. Kris Russell, the defenseman they acquired at the trade deadline, was "50/50" heading into the game, but decided it'd be best to play it safe.

Most importantly, Tyler Seguin was added to the injury list last week.

But it hasn't fazed them. In fact, the Stars have seemingly gotten better because of it.

[RELATED: Star struck: Blackhawks allow four first-period goals in pummeling]

Two days after the superstar center went down with an Achilles injury that will sideline him for the rest of the regular season, the Stars responded by shutting out the New York Islanders 3-0 and routing the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks 6-2 at the United Center on Tuesday night.

It took some great play by goaltender Kari Lehtonen, but it was also a product of all four lines stepping up in Seguin's absence.

"We're playing some of our best hockey right now, and it's through the depth of the lineup," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said after the game. "We've got secondary scoring. There's a lot of good things; special teams, our power play got us a big goal, our goalie made some big saves at important times. There's a lot of things that allow you to win a game."

The Stars struck first when Colton Sceviour banked a shot off Blackhawks goaltender Scott Darling's stick from behind the net. Just 25 seconds later, on the same shift, Vernon Fiddler extended the lead after burying one past Darling, who lost sight of it as did the sold-out crowd of 22,034.

Patrick Eaves, who netted a hat trick the last time Dallas played in Chicago on Feb. 11, made it a 3-0 lead on the power play, pouring more salt on the wound for the Blackhawks.

With 1:32 remaining in the period, the Blackhawks were awarded a power play and a chance to stop the bleeding. But it was Fiddler who found the back of the net for the second time in the period scoring a shorthanded goal to give the Stars a commanding 4-0 lead entering the first period.

It's the fourth time this season the Stars have built a 4-0 cushion against the Blackhawks, who are now closer to a wild-card spot than the top seed in the Central Division.

"We know it's a tough building to play in," Fiddler said. "It's one of those buildings where you better be ready to go or you're going to get it handed to you, and I think we came out really prepared and stuck to the game plan and capitalized on our opportunities."

Michael Leighton, who was recalled from the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League after Corey Crawford went down with an upper-body injury, replaced Darling in net and stopped 16 of 17 in relief. His first save was a nice one, which drew loud sarcastic cheers. It was just the third time since the 2010 Stanley Cup Final with Philadelphia — remember that, Chicago? — that Leighton had appeared in an NHL game.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville also went to the line blender once again, and it took a while, but it eventually paid off when Andrew Shaw pumped some life back into the building when he batted home his 13th goal of the season.

But it didn't last long, with Radek Faksa snapping home a shot past Leighton's left shoulder with 1:02 remaining in the second, effectively putting a stamp on the night.

"I thought it was a big goal by Faksa to come right back," Ruff said, "because I could sense a little bit of momentum and they were trying to turn up the heat, and they're very capable of doing that."

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The Blackhawks would get another one thanks to Richard Panik, but an empty-netter by Cody Eakin officially sealed it, giving the Stars a 6-2 win.

"They've taken it to us for a few years. They're a great hockey team," Fiddle said. "Their championships speak for themselves, they got a lot of winners and experience over there. It's obviously nice to be on the other side, but that doesn't give us a Stanley Cup in our dressing room. When playoff time comes, we know that they're going to be a better team.

"We just try to be our best every night and that's what we're focusing on, getting a little bit better every game before the playoffs start."

With the win, Dallas officially clinched a postseason berth, improving their record to 44-21-9, good for a Western Conference-best 97 points. 

In the past, it would take the final few games for the Stars' postseason fate to be decided.

This time, the only thing they'll be sweating is whether they'll secure the top seed in the division and conference, earning home-ice advantage in the West.

"We talked about getting off to a good start this year," Ruff said. "I think the start made a world of difference, our home record has made a world of difference. We put ourselves in a position that allowed us to clinch this early. Clinching is really important, but now it's moving on and making sure our game's in the right place. We've been playing some good hockey.

"It's Step 1 in what we're trying to accomplish. To go on the road and beat this team to help clinch is a good accomplishment, but now we're off to our next goal."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Blackhawks' One Goal be to tank?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Blackhawks' One Goal be to tank?

On the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, Danny Parkins (670 The Score), Seth Gruen (Big Ten Unfiltered) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel. 

The Blackhawks drop their 8th straight. So should their “One Goal” be to tank?

Plus, Jon Lester isn’t a fan of the new pace of play proposals. Is he right?

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here:

With playoff chances all but over, what can Blackhawks do at trade deadline?

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With playoff chances all but over, what can Blackhawks do at trade deadline?

After losing their eighth straight game and falling 12 points out of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks' playoff chances have dipped to a season-low 0.2 percent. It would take a miracle for them to extend their postseason streak to 10 at this point, where getting just one win seems like a monumental task.

The Blackhawks were probably never really going to be buyers before the Feb. 26 trade deadline even if they were still in the hunt, but it's hard to imagine they had plans to be sellers. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has reiterated over and over again that he's confident in this group, one that's getting younger and faster.

But now they've reached a territory where they have to consider selling off spare parts simply to coup some draft picks or prospects that they could perhaps retain or use as sweeteners in the offseason.

So which players could the Blackhawks realistically sell?

Let's start with the two players getting rewarded with top-six ice time as of late: Lance Bouma and Tommy Wingels.

These are two players that play with high energy and go to the greasy areas, something that's important in the playoffs when scoring goals becomes more difficult. They can clean up rebounds. Wingels, particularly, likely has more value and it's showing given his recent success on the power play as a net-front presence guy. He also isn't a stranger to the playoffs with 54 games under his belt compared to Bouma's five.

Both of them are pending unrestricted free agents and are making $1 million or fewer, which certainly works in the Blackhawks' favor considering they won't cost much and their cap hits are easy to fit in on any interested team.

Maybe a team would like to take a flyer on Tomas Jurco, who's a restricted free agent at the end of the season, but that would be a move somebody makes as more of a longer term project than strengthening your depth for a playoff run this spring.

On the back end, Michal Kempny and Jan Rutta could be in play for a contender looking to ensure some depth as a sixth or seventh defenseman. Again, each of them are making less than $1 million so it's a low-risk situation for clubs whose Plan A or B fall through and may be interested in at least getting something.

While they don't have much NHL experience, they're both 27 years old and have played the sport long enough to know what they can bring to the table.

Once Feb. 26 passes and potential roster spots open up, expect the Blackhawks to start calling up the kids. 

Matthew Highmore deserves a look after leading the Rockford IceHogs with 20 goals and 32 points. John Hayden has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 15 games since joining Rockford, and belongs in the NHL. Even Anthony Louis, who's taken a step forward, should get a taste of the action as he continues his development.

Carl Dahlstrom is getting his shot now. Erik Gustafsson is in that process as well. Gustav Forsling had another extended look during the first half of the season before the team decided it would be wise to continue his development in Rockford, where he can play top-pairing minutes.

All of this would give the Blackhawks a better indicator of how they can approach the upcoming offseason, and which young guys they can possibly add into the mix for 2018-19. But first, we have to see how the end of February plays out before making those calls.