Jeremy Layton
Friday February 12th, 2016

CHICAGO — How things can change in just six weeks of an NHL season. On December 22, when the Blackhawks played the Stars for the first time, Dallas was in sole possession of first place in the tough Central Division and had the best record in the NHL (25-7-2). Chicago, the defending Stanley Cup champion, was 10 points behind Jamie Benn and Co. in the standings. That night, the Stars beat up on the Blackhawks by a score of 4–0, behind a goal by Patrick Sharp and perfect goaltending by Antti Niemi, who had both won the Cup with Chicago in previous years.

Afterwards, the two teams quickly moved in opposite directions. Leading up to their matchup on Thursday night, Chicago went 16-5 in the weeks following that loss in Dallas, a run that included a franchise-record 12-game win streak. Meanwhile, the Stars went 7-8-3, dropping seven of eight in one brutal stretch. Chicago leapfrogged Dallas in the division. The Hawks helped themselves even more when they went back to Dallas last week and crushed the Stars on their home ice, 5–1.

Before the rubber match on Thursday night in Chicago, Stars coach Lindy Ruff acknowledged that his team faced a stiff challenge.

“We embarrassed ourselves a little bit with some of the stuff we did inside the game,” he said. ”You always want to see whether the players can answer that.”

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And answer they did, with a 4-2 victory that stands as one of their biggest of the season. The Stars jumped out to a commanding 4–0 lead in the first period, getting three goals from winger Patrick Eaves and one from defenseman John Klingberg. Benn and linemate Tyler Seguin combined for three assists. Dallas then held off a late Chicago surge and dramatically altered the dynamics of the Central Division.

On Thursday, the Stars looked like a completely different team than the one that slogged through January and squandered its division lead. They’ve played much better since the All-Star break, winning four of five and getting contributions from throughout their roster, and this was perhaps their most impressive victory. If the current trend continues, the Central may not be Chicago’s to lose as so many thought, and the Stars will challenge the Blackhawks until the very end.

So where were these Stars in January? Interestingly enough, their struggles started with their two best players, Benn and Seguin, who also happen to rank second and fourth in the league in points, respectively. At the start of the calendar year, both of them suddenly stopped scoring. Benn managed just six points in January after scoring at least 17 in every prior month, and Seguin only scored three, a number that he has more than doubled through five games in February. Goaltending was also an issue, most notably when Niemi and Kari Lehtonen allowed a combined 15 goals during a disastrous three-game road trip through New York and New Jersey, but this team is simply not the same when its two stars aren’t clicking.

“You’re talking Kane and Toews, we’re talking Benn and Seguin,” Ruff said after the game. “These are the guys that make your team go … you always look for those guys when you’re struggling to pull you out of [it].”

Having come alive in a big way since the break, Benn and Seguin were all over the ice during the Stars‘ win in Chicago. Perhaps they simply needed some R&R, but they both look faster and more explosive than they did the month before, which is certainly a good sign for Dallas.

“They’re skating better,” Ruff said. “I think the one-on-one battles and the skating have been a lot better.”

When nature calls a goalie

As for the once-sizzling Blackhawks, they’ve looked flat in their past couple games after winning three straight out of the break. Goalie Corey Crawford had been a huge reason for Chicago’s recent surge. Since the calendar flipped to 2016, he has a superb .949 save percentage, which would be far and away tops in the league if it were his mark for the entire schedule. (His .931 season-long percentage ranks fourth.) During that hot stretch, he blanked both Ottawa (sixth in the league in goals per game) and St. Louis for his sixth and seventh shutouts of the season, the most of any NHL goaltender. Having a healthy Duncan Keith on defense has surely helped Crawford, but he’s been playing some of the best hockey of his career.

On Thursday, however, Crawford laid an egg in a very important game. He surrendered four goals in the first period before being replaced by Scott Darling, who fared much better in the second and third periods. It’s hard to lay all of the blame on Crawford considering that he was pounded by 18 shot attempts in the first, but he still whiffed on several saves he should have made, and couldn’t keep up with the Stars’ pace. The two-time Cup-winning goaltender will surely chalk this one up as an outlier, but he’ll need to be at the top of his game should the Hawks face the potent Stars in a seven-game playoff series.

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Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville isn’t worried.

“He’s been fine all year,” he said. “He’ll be all right.”

Apart from being a matchup between two of the West’s top teams, this night also held special significance for a pair of Stars: winger Patrick Sharp and blueliner Johnny Oduya, who were both members of the Hawks’ 2015 championship team (and have five rings between them from their lengthy stints with Chicago). It was the first regular season game that the two had played in the United Center since leaving the Blackhawks last summer, and both were feeling the emotion as soon as they walked into the building.

“I think it’ll be more fun today than the last time [the Stars played the Blackhawks],” Oduya said before the game. “It’s always fun being back. A lot of memories here.”

“I watched that whole [banner raising] ceremony, the first game of the season,” Sharp said. “It got me pretty pumped up to play. I wish I was a part of it, but you know, you look up at the banners and it’s something to be proud of. And I certainly am of my time here in Chicago.”

Sharp and Oduya were both popular and productive members of the Hawks, and each played an important role in securing the championship banners that decorate the rafters of the United Center. But they were both casualties of the NHL’s salary cap, the strictest in American professional sports, and forced to relocate to Dallas, Sharp via trade and Oduya through free agency. When asked whether he speculated on what would have happened if the salary cap weren’t so strict, Oduya said he didn’t harbor any ill will towards Chicago for not re-signing him.

“Maybe I wouldn’t be here in the first place if there was no salary cap,” he said. ”The reality of the game is what it is. I feel fortunate that I spent the time here that I did. For me, now, it’s looking forward.”

Not only was it Sharp’s first regular-season game back in Chicago, it was also his 800th career game, and it’s almost poetic that the veteran, who has produced 566 points during his 14-year-career, achieved such a milestone in the arena where he spent a majority of his NHL tenure.

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“Kind of weird how that happens, 800th game in the building that I played the bulk of my games in,” Sharp said on Thursday morning. “It should be fun. The first couple of games against the Hawks were difficult to play in, a little emotional, a little weird out there. But there are valuable points on the line, so I’m sure those feelings go away as the season goes on.”

Thursday’s game was important for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest takeaway was that Dallas does not seem intent on going quietly into the night. After a strong showing out of the break, the Stars' January slump seems like a burp and not the norm. If they can sustain their recent success in an upcoming stretch that includes tough matchups against Washington, St. Louis and Boston, they have a chance to jump the Blackhawks in the standings by the time these teams meet next a month from now.

As for Chicago? The Hawks are still undoubtedly an elite team, and every one of them has an off night from time to time. Chicago actually out-shot the Stars in the game, and looked like the far superior team in the third period, with 21 shots to Dallas’s two. But the road ahead doesn’t get any easier, as the Hawks have the Capitals, Rangers and resurgent Ducks on their schedule before February ends. And all of a sudden, holding off Dallas looks a bit more difficult than it did two weeks ago.

The Central is arguably the best division in hockey, but it’s hard to deny that Chicago and Dallas are the cream of the crop. With three of the NHL’s four points leaders one either of the two teams (Benn, Seguin and Chicago’s Patrick Kane), each club has plenty of firepower, and although none of their three regular-season meetings have been particularly close, this matchup still has the makings of a highly entertaining Western Conference semi-final series. After their victory on Thursday, Dallas was just a point behind Chicago. And if the Stars have truly righted themselves, there’s plenty of reason for the defending champs to be nervous.

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