Central Division race feeling like a mini playoffs


Central Division race feeling like a mini playoffs

The Central Division is a little crowded at the top, the chase for first getting as interesting as many figured it would. It’s tight. It’s intense.

It’s fantastic.

“I think it’s great for the league,” Marian Hossa said on Tuesday. “Obviously we would like to have a lead even more. But it’s a competitive game and still lots of games left and we try to finish first.”

The Blackhawks, who have 15 games remaining in their regular season, face tough tests against their closest divisional competitors this week: the St. Louis Blues tonight and the Dallas Stars on Friday. The Stars, following their 4-3 overtime loss to Montreal, moved into first in the Central with 88 points. The Blackhawks are second with 87 points and the Blues are in third with 85 points.

It’s a cliché, certainly, but consider this stretch run the postseason before the postseason.

“We always say we don’t want to be making Game 82 life and death to get in, but if we’re fighting for first place, we still like to get first place. It keeps our attention in the right place,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s a very meaningful road trip, two important games against two important teams as far as where we’re sitting. When we get down to a short number of games, maybe it’s clearer then, but we’ll see.”

[MORE: Marian Hossa out Wednesday against Blues]

Meanwhile, the Blues have weathered plenty of injuries this season. They’re still without forward Alexander Steen and goaltender Brian Elliott. Yet here the Blues are, breathing down the Blackhawks’ necks. Considering the history between the two teams, a fight for first place only intensifies the rivalry.

“We're going to play it like it’s any other game, but we know what’s on the line,” David Backes told the St. Louis media on Tuesday. “And there’s no love lost and there's no needed incentive to get up for the games against Chicago.”

Speaking of injuries, the Blackhawks will be without Hossa (lower body) at least one more game. There was a chance Hossa would be back against the Blues tonight but the right wing said he needs a little bit more time to be 100 percent.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty riding on this last bunch of games. The division race is tight. There’s no better way to prep for the postseason than with a tough stretch heading into it.

“It’s going to be important for us to come out hard tonight,” Andrew Shaw said. “We have some big games coming up against central division teams. It’s a playoff mentality in getting ourselves ready.”

How will the Blackhawks utilize Kirby Dach?

How will the Blackhawks utilize Kirby Dach?

The Blackhawks recalled No. 3 overall pick Kirby Dach from his AHL conditioning stint on Friday night after he appeared in three games with the Rockford IceHogs. He missed the first week of training camp with a concussion and the organization wanted him to get a taste of the pro action and back up to speed after not playing in any preseason games, either.

"I enjoyed the experience there," Dach said. "I had a lot of fun. Got to see a couple buddies. It was good for me to get down there and get some pro games under my belt and just feel what the pace is going to be like. It'll be another step up here, but I feel good and I feel like I'm ready to go."

Whether Dach makes his NHL debut on Sunday against the Washington Capitals won't be revealed by head coach Jeremy Colliton until after morning skate on Sunday. But where does he fit into the lineup going forward?

The Blackhawks are 2-0-1 in their past three games and aren't necessarily looking to shake up their rotation, even though they're still searching for consistency on all four lines.

The easy answer is for Dach to slide into a third-line center role behind Jonathan Toews and Dylan Strome, but the trio of David Kampf, Dominik Kubalik and Brandon Saad has undoubtedly been the most consistent for the Blackhawks this season. And we saw in the home opener what happened when they were separated. 

The Blackhawks held an optional practice on Saturday morning and didn't run through line rushes, but before Dach was assigned to Rockford, he took several spins on the first line with Toews and alternated with Drake Caggiula and Alex DeBrincat. It's possible Dach starts on the wing, where he can play top-six minutes and not have as much responsibility as a center would.

"I've played wing in previous years, so it's not something that's new to me," Dach said. "At the same time I'm open-minded to just getting into the lineup and helping the team win."

The Blackhawks can give Dach up to nine NHL games before deciding whether they want to burn the first year of his entry-level contract or send him back to the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL.

"As a kid you always grow up dreaming of playing in the NHL, so there'll be nerves," Dach said. "But there will also be a lot of excitement. I've just got to do my best to focus on my game and be ready to play whenever my name's called upon by the coaching staff."

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Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Blackhawks scratch out a win and Kirby Dach recalled

USA Today

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Blackhawks scratch out a win and Kirby Dach recalled

Pat Boyle and Charlie Roumeliotis welcome Nick Gismondi into the fold before discussing Friday's win over Columbus. Robin Lehner played stellar and is forming quite a tandem in net with Corey Crawford (4:10), while the DeBrincat/Kane connection is alive and well (6:10), and the Blackhawks' struggles at even strength continued (12:10). Then, the guys react to the breaking news of Kirby Dach's recall from Rockford and discuss where he might fit into this lineup (15:10).

Listen to the entire episode here or in the embedded player below.

Blackhawks Talk Podcast


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.