Dallas Stars

Central Casting: Can Blackhawks play the role of playoff team?

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USA TODAY

Central Casting: Can Blackhawks play the role of playoff team?

If the Blackhawks are going to end their postseason drought next season, they are going to have to jump over at least one of the five Central Division foes who qualified for this year’s postseason.

Of course, there is no guarantee the Central will get five teams in next year’s tournament, but let’s look at each club and identify teams that could take a step back next season.

Nashville

Ever since the Predators swept the Blackhawks and lost to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final, they have continued to regress each year in their attempts to hoist the Cup.

Last year, they lost to Winnipeg in Game 7 of the second round. This postseason, Dallas ousted Nashville in the first round.

The Predators appear to be at a Cup crossroads. They need to find more scoring than just the JOFA line. Do they need to move P.K. Subban to acquire scoring depth?

They also had the worst power play in the league and 36-year-old goalie Pekka Rinne had a sub-par .905 save percentage in the playoffs.

Expect a busy offseason in the Music City as the Predators look to stay in the upper tier of the Central.

Cup contender trending: Down

Winnipeg 

Did the Jets run into a team of destiny in the Blues? Or did the opening round loss highlight some areas of concern for Winnipeg?

The Jets season in many ways was the exact opposite of the Blues. Winnipeg started strong and was just average in the second half of the season.

The Jets have seven players that will become unrestricted free agents on July 1st, including Kevin Hayes. They also have six restricted free agents on their roster, which includes Patrik Laine and Jacob Trouba.

The Jets have had a rocky relationship with Trouba and are expected to trade the 25-year-old defenseman. Connor Hellebuyck’s production dropped off a bit from 2018 when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist.

The Jets have a great power play and three lines that can score. A couple of roster tweaks could help this young team take the next step.

Cup contender trending: Even

St. Louis

From last place in the entire league on Jan. 2 to being one of the final four teams standing in pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Craig Berube pushed all the right buttons when he took over last November. The Blues commitment to defense was highlighted by finally finding what appears to be a franchise goalie in Jordan Binnington.

The Blues are strong down the middle with centers Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak.

The Blues' key players are under contract next season. So, other than finding a new anthem to replace “Gloria” the Blues could be a major roadblock in the Blackhawks climb up the Central standings.

Cup contender trending: Up

Dallas

Another first-year coach in the Central, Jim Montgomery saw his team improve dramatically, as they fell just one goal short of reaching the Western Conference Final.

The Stars have a tremendous 1-2 punch in net with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.  

They have solid special teams with players like Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov and John Klingberg putting up monster numbers.

They also saw young players like Miro Heiskanen and Roope Hintz make an impact on the scoresheet.

The Stars spent a second-round pick on Mats Zuccarello. Will the Stars have enough cap room to sign Zuccarello when he becomes a UFA this summer?

Cup contender trending: Even

Colorado

The Avalanche punched the final postseason ticket in the West and rode it all the way to Game 7 of the second round.

Luck was on the side of the Blackhawks during the draft lottery, but that wasn’t the case for Colorado. They had the best odds for the No. 1 overall pick and ended up with the fourth overall selection.

The Blackhawks won’t have to deal with Jack Hughes in an Avs sweater, but they will have to worry about blue line phenom Cale Makar for the foreseeable future.

The Avalanche had the most dangerous line in hockey for much of the season with Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.

They are a young, fast team with a steady netminder in Philipp Grubauer. They will see Colin Wilson become a UFA on July 1.

Colorado may end up being the elite team in the Central for years to come.

Cup contender trending: Up

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks tighten up on defense to get revenge on Stars

Four takeaways: Blackhawks tighten up on defense to get revenge on Stars

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 2-1 win over the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on Saturday:

1. Team defense and revenge

Two weekends ago, the Blackhawks had a prime opportunity to play themselves inside the playoff picture with games against Colorado and Dallas. They outplayed both of them, but didn't get the result.

On Saturday, they did.

The Blackhawks recorded 77 shot attempts (39 on goal) and allowed only 27 shots on goal, including just five in the third period when they were hanging onto a one-goal lead. Corey Crawford stopped all but one of them for a save percentage of .963.

It's only the 10th time this season the Blackhawks held an opponent to 27 shots or fewer in a game. And it was also the first time since Dec. 21 that the Blackhawks held an opponent to one goal or fewer, a span of 30 games. A great team road win.

2. Fourth line turns in another strong performance

Jeremy Colliton liked what the fourth line of David Kampf, Marcus Kruger and Chris Kunitz brought to the table on Thursday in a 5-4 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres. He must've loved what they did two nights later.

The trio connected for the first goal of the game, which was an important one considering the Blackhawks fell behind in their last meeting. Kampf scored a goal, Kunitz had a primary assist, seven shot attempts (a season-high five on goal), two hits and a takeaway while Kruger had a shot on goal and a takeaway. It's exactly what the Blackhawks are looking for out of their fourth line.

3. Secondary scoring starting to come

The Blackhawks have been trying to roll a consistent four-line rotation all season long, but have found themselves relying heavily on their top horses because their bottom-six hasn't been as effective. But they're starting to get it.

In the past four games, here's which Blackhawks have gotten in the goal column: Artem Anisimov (2), Alex DeBrincat, Erik Gustafsson, Kampf, Duncan Keith, Connor Murphy, Brendan Perlini (3) and Dylan Strome.

That's eight different Blackhawks, three of which are defensemen. You'll notice Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews aren't on there. The Blackhawks are obviously at their best when they're producing, and now it's about putting it all together and getting contributions from everyone at the same time to see what the ceiling could be.

4. The Cat closing in on 40 goals

After going goalless in his previous three games, DeBrincat got back on the scoresheet for his 37th goal of the season. He's now three goals away from 40 on the season with 14 games left.

Only three players have reached the 40-goal mark so far this season: Alex Ovechkin (46), Leon Draisaitl (41) and Kane (40). It's not hard to envision DeBrincat joining that club, which is hard to believe he could get there in his second NHL season.

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks fight back again but come up empty in crucial weekend

Four takeaways: Blackhawks fight back again but come up empty in crucial weekend

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-3 loss to the Dallas Stars at the United Center on Sunday:

1. Sluggish start

The Blackhawks came out of the gates flying, recording three consecutive shots on goal and preventing the Stars from getting their first until the 4:06 mark. But then it was all Dallas.

At even strength, the Stars led in scoring chances (13-4) and high-danger chances (8-1), according to naturalstattrick.com, and capitalized on a couple of them when Radek Faksa and Alexander Radulov each found the back of the net on prime scoring chances. It's the fifth time in six games the Blackhawks have given up the first goal, and they found themselves chasing the game.

"Didn't mind sort of the first 5-8 minutes of the game," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We had some good stretches, had some opportunities in their end, had some point shots, deflections, what not. But then I think around minute 12 basically until they went up 3-0, we got away from what we need to do to have success. I thought we were playing slow, turning the puck back. We allowed them to sit with five guys and cause turnovers and the puck ended up in the back of our net a bunch of times which made it, even though we played really well the rest of the game, we were just uphill the whole game."

2. Fighting back again

Give credit to the Blackhawks. No matter what the deficits have been, they've been able to claw back in many of the games they've trailed early on. On Friday, they rallied three different times. On Monday, they overcame a two-goal deficit to beat the Ottawa Senators.

On Sunday they did it again. After the Stars scored three straight goals to open the game, the Blackhawks responded with three of their own — Chris Kunitz, Drake Caggiula and Jonathan Toews — to even it up at 3-3 in the third period.

But they don't want to make a habit out of playing from behind. The Blackhawks didn't hold the lead at any point over their past two games against divisional opponents, which were crucial in the standings, and it's why they came up empty this weekend.

"I don't think we're happy with our start tonight," Toews said. "But other than that, pretty solid efforts in both games. Especially at home, we played with a lot of energy. We definitely raised our game knowing these points are huge. Even though you play good hockey doesn't necessarily mean you're going to win every night. Two teams that are just as desperate as we are to stay on top, sneak into a playoff spot. Unfortunately, we couldn't take advantage of these home games."

3. The turning point

The turning point of the game came midway through the third period when the Blackhawks were whistled for too many men, and then, 38 seconds later Duncan Keith was guilty of a tripping penalty. The Stars converted on the 5-on-3 opportunity thanks to a tap-in backdoor goal from Jason Spezza, and it put the Blackhawks back down a goal.

"At the end of the day, I think we worked hard, but we didn't get the job done so it stings," Keith said. "It was obviously two big division games, but nothing we can do it about it now and just try to get two points here in Anaheim."

4. Late push

Despite falling behind again, the Blackhawks had a golden opportunity to regain control towards the latter stages of the third period when Dominik Kahun drew a high-sticking penalty that resulted in a four-minute power play with 4:34 left in regulation.

The internal belief that they would tie it up was there, and so were the chances, with the Blackhawks finishing the game with six consecutive shots on goal over that span, but they couldn't crack Anton Khudobin, who turned aside 44 of 47 shots.

"Unfortunately couldn't get any draws going to kind of save our energy and wear them down, keep them in their own end," Toews said. "Still creating chances, just couldn't find the back of the net. Yeah, tough one, big opportunities there to try and at least even the game up, if not take over in the third. Sucks that we let that one slip."

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