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."

Hawks Talk Podcast: Crawford's return, Saad's demotion and power play concerns


Hawks Talk Podcast: Crawford's return, Saad's demotion and power play concerns

In the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Charlie Roumeliotis and Slavko Bekovic provide their thoughts on the Blackhawks’ 3-0-2 start.

They also discuss Brandon Saad’s demotion and whether it could serve as a wake-up call, Corey Crawford’s potential return on Thursday vs. Arizona and what could happen with Anton Forsberg because of it, and address the power play concerns.

The guys wrap up the podcast by making a few bold predictions going forward.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below, and be sure to subscribe, rate us and write a review!

10 years with 'Coach Q' anything but ordinary

10 years with 'Coach Q' anything but ordinary

Over the last 10 years, the words “ordinary” and "OK" have taken on a new meaning to Blackhawks players and fans alike. 

That’s “Coach Q” speak. 

A language where “ordinary” means awful and “just OK” means you were a non-factor. The good news is the last 10 seasons under Joel Quenneville have been anything but ordinary at the United Center. 

On Oct. 16th, 2008, the Blackhawks let go of fan-favorite Denis Savard after a 1-2-1 start to the season and named Quenneville as head coach in his place. Quenneville coached the Colorado Avalanche the previous season, but after another disappointing exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the two mutually parted ways. He had originally planned to stay away from the bench for at least a season, but the Blackhawks triumvirate of Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough and then-GM Dale Tallon brought Quenneville on as a scout and then handed him the keys to the car shortly after.

“Dale’s obligation is to put together a winning team,” said McDonough at Quenneville’s introductory press conference. “At this point, Joel is the coach of that team.”

It was an emotional day at the Blackhawks offices. Savard – a Blackhawks legend on the ice and a coach the players held in high regard – was let go just as things started to turn upwards for the organization. The end of the 2007-2008 season saw the Blackhawks once again miss out on the playoffs, but the fans began to flock to the United Center once more, and the hype train around the young team built around Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane was gaining steam.

“Moving forward, if we want to be a championship-caliber organization, we have to make tough decisions,” said Tallon. “This was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.” 

Savard was 65-66-16 in parts of three seasons as head coach of the Blackhawks. Meanwhile, Quenneville had compiled eight 95+ point seasons behind the bench for the Blues and Avalanche in his 11 years as a head coach.

“We felt the experience and the track record of Joel would be a balance that we needed with a young, inexperienced team,” said Tallon. "Joel brings us a wealth of experience and a winning track record that will have an immediate and lasting impact."

The gamble paid off for the Blackhawks in a major way. Once Quenneville took over, the team got to the sought-after next level. 

They finished the 08-09 season with 104 points, third-most in the NHL’s Western Conference, had a franchise-record setting 9-game win streak in the month of December and returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-2002 season. The “young and inexperienced” Blackhawks took the league by storm, dropping the Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs in six games before taking down the rival Canucks in the next round.

They ultimately lost out to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals, but the bar was now set for the organization. From then on, the Blackhawks were Stanley Cup contenders. 

Quenneville currently ranks 2nd in franchise history with 449 wins, trailing only Billy Reay’s 516. 

But most importantly, Quenneville’s 76 playoff wins rank at the top in the organization’s long and storied history, and those three Stanley Cups that he’s raised over his head were anything but “ordinary.”