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


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."

Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators


Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators

Ryan Hartman has been through this before. Back in December of 2012, he sustained a torn labrum in his right shoulder but played through it because the Plymouth Whalers were in the middle of a playoff run. He waited until the offseason to have it surgically repaired and was cleared for contact just in time for him to attend his first training camp with the Blackhawks in September of 2013.

This time was a little different though.

Hartman had been acquired by the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline in exchange for prospect Victor Ejdsell and a 2018 first- and fourth-round pick — a hefty price to pay — in hopes of serving as an additional spark plug for a Predators team looking to load up for a second consecutive Stanley Cup run.

So when Hartman was brushed by Nathan MacKinnon along the boards, lost his footing and fell on his left shoulder late in Game 4 of the first round against Colorado, he immediately knew something was up.

"It didn't feel great at all," said Hartman, who went straight to the dressing room and had team doctors pop it back into place. "I finished the game and was able to finish playoffs in like a modified sling, which sucked to play with, but it's playoffs. It's one of those things where there are many guys playing through injuries and I was one of them."

Hartman, who's been rehabbing and training in Chicago, received the green light to fully participate in hockey-related drills last Monday but was advised to delay his Chicago Pro Hockey League debut for one more week just to err on the side of caution. On Wednesday, he got back into a game-type setting and "felt good" after 50 minutes of action going up against former teammates Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane.

Now he can fully focus on this upcoming season and amp up his on-ice training to a level he couldn't get to while recovering from shoulder surgery with training camp a month away.

Hartman was a restricted free agent this summer and recently re-signed with the Predators on a one-year deal worth $875,000. Clearly, he's betting on himself to bounce back to his rookie year form when he scored 19 goals and cash out on a larger paycheck down the line, even though he had multiple longer-term offers from the Predators.

"Yeah we talked, [GM David Poile] wants me to be there, I want to be there, we have a good relationship," Hartman said. "Obviously, he gave up a lot of stuff to take me and sees me in the future of the team and I see myself there too. There's a lot of little things that go into negotiations — if it's money wise or length — and there was a various amount [of offers] that was thrown out on both sides. With no [arbitration] rights, the best thing for me and my team was to bet on myself, take the year and go from there next year."

With that comes the pressure of having to earn another contract for the second straight year, which is also risky considering he's coming off an injury that sidelined him all summer. But that's just the way he wants it.

"Either way I want to play my best, if I have a contract or not for long-term," Hartman said. "There is the benefit of having security with long-term deals, but you see guys, in history, that sign these deals and maybe have a year or two of, not really being complacent, but just feeling satisfied. I don't like the feeling of being satisfied. I'm not saying that's why I took that contract over another contract, but it was a good month and a half of debating one of the other three [offers]. My family and my agent, we chose this was the best for me and the team as well."

It's easy to see why the Predators are happy with this deal, too. Hartman is better suited to play in a bottom-six role on a really good team but has the ability to play in the top-six if needed. A strong season out of him and they'll be happy to reward him with a longer-term offer next summer. It also means he'd be making an impact while making less than $1 million, and every contending team needs those contributions from their depth players.

Pull up the Predators' CapFriendly page and you'll notice generous contract after generous contract for a majority of their players, particularly their core group. Look no further than Ryan Ellis, who signed an eight-year extension on Tuesday that carries a cap hit of $6.25 million. He certainly left money on the table but elected to take less to follow the lead of everyone else in Nashville because the ultimate goal is to keep the band together.

"You look at Sidney Crosby, one of the best players in the league, isn't even making close to the most money in the league and that's a reason why they've won two Cups," Hartman said. "They have space, maybe not necessarily as much as the Preds do, but Poile's good at that, he's good at stressing winning, the importance of winning, and keeping a team together. Sometimes when you go year to year losing four or five players every summer, it takes a toll having to introduce yourself to new guys all the time. Keeping the same group is really beneficial."

The Predators won't have to do much introducing next month. They're essentially rolling back the same team that arguably would've reached the Stanley Cup Final if they had gotten past the Winnipeg Jets. Hartman will be an important part of that group, only this time he'll be there from the start.

"That's what I'm really excited for," he said. "It's tough coming in [halfway through the season], it kind of feels like ... it's your first time getting called up with the new team. You're adjusting, you're trying not to make a mistake, trying to earn a spot, per se, earn the respect of your peers, so having that and going through a playoff run and a Game 7, if you go through a Game 7 with anybody, it's a bond. The stuff you fight through and you play for each other, to be able to go through a training camp and the ups and downs throughout the whole season, it's going to be exciting. I fell in love with the group for the short time I was there and I'm excited to be there at the start of training camp."

Start of the Blackhawks Dynasty, Part 4: Roster overview

Start of the Blackhawks Dynasty, Part 4: Roster overview

In a 10-part series, we look back at the 10-year anniversary of the 2008-09 season, the start of the Blackhawks dynasty.

Starting a dynasty means you have to identify a group of core players to build your team around. Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews were those guys, along with Marian Hossa, who joined that mix later on.

You also need a mixture of young talent and strong veterans to fill out the depth to become successful. That's exactly what the Blackhawks had at the beginning of their dynasty and throughout.

On the first day of NHL free agency in 2008, the Blackhawks inked All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell to an eight-year deal, which solidified Chicago as a destination players wanted to commit to long term. That same year, Kris Versteeg emerged as the Blackhawks' third Calder Trophy candidate in two years, Martin Havlat and Andrew Ladd set a career high in points with 77 and 49, respectively, while youngsters Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer and Dustin Byfuglien began to make a name for themselves as valuable pieces to the puzzle.

"Real good group of guys," Joel Quenneville said on Oct. 18, 2008. "I can say that it's the first time I walked in the room where, wow, I was impressed."

Six of the Blackhawks' Top 10 scorers in 2008-09 were aged 23 or younger. The average age for the other four? 27. The youth movement was real and they all contributed in a big way.