This is a fun time of year for hockey fans. The playoff picture starts to come into focus and potential matchups are hard to resist. Having already examined potential playoff foes Colorado and St. Louis, it is time to take a look at a possible first round clash between the Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks.
The Stars and Blackhawks played each other five times this season. In those five games (three in Dallas, two in Chicago), the Stars beat the Hawks four times. The season series was a strange one, none of the games were very close.
Chicago 1 win - Dallas 4 wins
Chicago 11 GF - Dallas 20 GF
From 30,000 feet
The Stars scored a power play goal in four of the five contests against the Hawks and scored twice on the job in two of those games. Only one game saw the Stars fail to score with the man advantage, and the Hawks won that one 5-1.
In the big 5-1 win by Chicago in the American Airlines Center, the Hawks scored one on the power play and twice shorthanded. This was the only game where the Blackhawks were able to score a special teams goal against Dallas, and they scored three.
If you do some math (stay with me), the Stars averaged four goals and 33 shots per game against the Blackhawks this season. The Blackhawks averaged almost 30 shots per game, but only 2.25 goals. Admittedly, this is a small sample size, but it does tell us something: on an average night of competition between the Stars and Hawks, we should expect some fairly close hockey games.
Those stats are not adjusted for score, for what that's worth.
Saying "Special Teams Will Be Important" seems like a waste of space, but there it is. I said it anyway.
Goal differential for Dallas throughout the season is +32, and Chicago is +21. Both differentials are indicative of a good hockey team. Particularly Dallas' +32, tied for the second best differential in hockey.
Taking a look at the last 12 games, it becomes clear that these two teams are headed in very different directions.
On one hand, you have the Stars. Dallas has won 8 of its last 12, and picked up points in two more games. That was a particularly testy stretch of schedule for our heroes with games against Chicago twice, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, New York (Islanders), San Jose, and Nashville. The only regulation losses were to the Kings and Coyotes. It was a brutal stretch against top competition, and the Stars picked up 18 of 24 points. Goaltending and penalty killing have been a huge part of the Stars' return to form.
Not so much in Chicago. In Chicago's last 12 games, the Hawks have lost eight of those with two coming in overtime. Of a possible 24 points, they earned 10. Corey Crawford is out with a head-related injury and is having issues with vertigo (all the best to him, that's scary stuff). Anyone who thought Crawford wasn't one of the straws that stirred the drink in Chicago has learned that when Crawford is off or hurt, this is a different team. The Blackhawks have made an annual tradition of playing lackluster hockey in March, then hoisting the Cup in June; but this slide feels different.
Neither team can say they are icing their best team at the moment, but then again, not many teams can after 75-78 hockey games.
Chicago is missing their star goalie in Crawford with no timetable for his return. Artem Anisimov is questionable but is expected to return for the playoffs. Brent Seabrook is sick, but, again, should return for the post season. Duncan Keith is out for the foreseeable future after his wickedness last night.
The Stars are missing some key pieces to their roster, too. If you haven't heard, Tyler Seguin is out for a while longer. Best case scenario has Seguin returning for the season finale against Nashville, worst case has his missing a couple of playoff games. Kris Russell is available to return (technically), but Lindy Ruff said yesterday that he will be held out at least one more game as a precaution. Jason Demers is out with a separated shoulder, with an initial prognosis of six weeks. His availability in the first round will be up in the air. Brett Ritchie is questionable Thursday.
That last paragraph was longer than I thought it was going to be.
As you can see, the Stars are dealing with more injuries, but the key Chicago absences lack a timetable (Crawford and Keith). Dallas has weathered the storm without two of their top four defensemen, and arguably their second best player; but at least they are set to return. Crawford could be out much longer.
The bottom line is hard to boil down to a witty fragment/phrase. Dallas is playing better now, but Chicago has done a lot of postseason winning. Chicago is healthier, but their only injury is to their best player with no timetable. The Stars have dominated the Hawks in the special teams battle (H2H), but the one game they didn't Chicago won 5-1. Dallas plays well at home, but it will be half red in a playoff series (unless fans decide to do something about it).
I struggled with this write up. In a vacuum, the Stars should beat the Hawks in 4-5 games. They have been better than Chicago all year, and seem to be peaking at the right time. The Stars are getting some stops from Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza play for the Stars.
A lot of teams have begged to play the Hawks in the first round over the last several years when Chicago was in their typical March slump. And most of the time, that ended in defeat. It is tempting to look at this matchup and prefer the Hawks over the Preds or even the Wild given their current form. You could be forgiven for taking a strictly #Corsi view on the Hawks and saying, "Stars are better, bring it."
But until the Blackhawks lose a playoff series, I prefer to be careful what I wish for.
Are the Stars the better team? A lot of indicators say yes. But the heavy ring fingers at the United Center and their coach give me pause. It would be a heck of a series that's for sure.